Asbestos importers and removal firms would have to change their danger labels for the carcinogen under a recent federal proposal.

A proposed rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — a federal agency devoted to workplace safety — looks to rework the national Hazard Communication Standard for the first time since 2012. As part of that process, the proposal includes minor changes to the mandatory warnings for asbestos handling, including alterations to the container labeling and the safety data sheets that accompany asbestos products.

This gargantuan document — the introduction to the proposed changes is over 148 pages by itself — covers labeling and disclosure requirements for companies that work with dangerous chemicals ranging from explosives to flammable liquids, all of which is intended to ensure employee safety. The danger labels and accompanying safety data sheets are designed to convey in plain English the handling and disposal requirements, the type of threat a chemical poses, the level of that threat, and how to respond in an emergency.

Same Concept, New Approach

The proposed rule would not fundamentally alter the basic framework of the Hazard Communication Standard; chemical manufacturers, importers and distributors would still have to provide employees with information about the chemicals they handle. Rather, the goal is to bring OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard in line with the one used by the United Nations: the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS).

OSHA’s current standard is aligned with GHS’s third revised edition, published in 2009, while the proposed rule would update it to comport with GHS’s seventh revised edition, which was issued in 2017.

The meat of the rule is actually in the four appendixes, which cover the classifications for various chemicals, the physical threats they can pose, the presentation and placement of danger/warning labels and the required content for safety data sheets.

Limited Asbestos Changes

Unlike some chemical information, which sees a complete overhaul under the proposed rule, the changes for asbestos handling are fairly minor and focus mainly on the labeling. These changes would apply to both importers of asbestos products and companies that dispose of asbestos, per an OSHA memo.

Most of the changes for asbestos and other carcinogenic products — asbestos is considered a category 1A carcinogen — are in the details of the danger label. For example, the revised label adds a requirement that hearing protection be given to workers handling carcinogens, and reinforces the importance of wearing personal protective equipment when handling cancer-causing substances.

The changes aren’t exclusively focused on imposing new mandates. A section of the danger label devoted to exposure issues now notes that companies handling these products can list medical advice as appropriate. Similarly, the proposed rule adds a section to the disposal instructions that companies can use to specify whether disposal refers to the chemicals, their containers, or both.

The proposal also changes the definition of “carcinogen” itself, though the change merely clarifies that it applies to both cancer-causing products and those that increase the likelihood of developing cancer following exposure.

More General Changes

Other applicable revisions aren’t specific to carcinogens. For example, the proposed rules specify that the pictogram depicted on the label can only appear once. It also adds a requirement that when a product merits multiple precautionary statements, companies should prioritize the most urgent ones first, accompanied by at least one route of exposure or an associated symptom.

Another change permits slight variations in the mandatory precautionary statements to allow for some flexibility in communicating information. However, the proposed rule warns that such changes should be applied consistently; if the wording on a warning label is tweaked, that revised wording should also appear on the accompanying safety data sheet.

Yet another change allows companies to limit the information disclosed about chemicals considered trade secrets. While the current Hazard Communication Standard already allows for trade secrets, the proposed rule expands their allowances, permitting companies to list the range of a hazardous chemical’s concentration in a mixture, rather than specify its amount.

These changes aren’t always easy to discern. Fortunately, OSHA provides a marked-up copy of the rules that shows every deletion and substitution.

Coming To a Danger Label Near You

As with all proposed rules, this one does not have the force of law. Rather, it is intended to solicit feedback from industry and the general public, feedback that will then be incorporated into a final rule at some point that would have the force of law. OSHA stated that the changes will take effect within 60 days of the final rule being published.

However, enforcement of the provisions will be phased in over a two-year period, with companies that produce, import and distribute affected chemicals having one year to comply, and those dealing in affected mixtures having two years.

These changes would also impact the 28 states and U.S. territories that have their own OSHA-approved health plans. To ensure that the state requirements are consistent with federal mandates, they would either have to adopt these changes or demonstrate why they are unnecessary.

OSHA is accepting comments on the proposed rule through April 19.

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