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Guide to Chemical Hazard Labels

April 14, 2024

Chemical hazards in the workplace can yield adverse environmental and health effects. In work environments, employers are responsible for protecting employees by ensuring hazardous materials have clearly visible warning labels.

To learn more, check out the infographic created by Tulane University’s Master of Science in Public Health in Industrial Hygiene.

Infographic explaining chemical hazard labels in the workplace

The Need for Chemical Hazard Labels

Well-known hazardous substances include asbestos, arsenic, lead, and bleach. But many other lesser-known chemical hazards also require labels.

Types of Chemical Hazards               

A health hazard includes chemicals that may cause serious and long-term negative effects on health. Flammable chemicals or highly flammable gasses may catch fire or ignite once exposed to the air or other ignition sources. 

Irritants or hazards to the ozone layer are types of chemicals that cause redness, rashes, or inflammation and may harm the ozone layer. Another type of chemical hazard is gas stored under pressure which may explode if heated or refrigerated. Corrosive chemicals may cause severe skin burns and tissue damage, while explosive chemicals pose the risk of damage caused by explosions.

Chemicals or substances that may cause severe physical hazards, such as fires or explosions if placed under certain conditions or exposed to other chemicals or elements, are classified as oxidizing.

Chemicals that may cause long-term damage to the environment are classified as hazardous to the environment. Toxic chemicals, on the other hand, are chemicals that may cause irreversible changes or mutations to DNA, illness, or even death, even at very low exposure.

Common Chemical Hazards in the Workplace               

Exposure to chemical hazards can cause both acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) health effects. For example, skin contact with or inhalation of gasoline may cause dizziness, headaches, and even respiratory and central nervous system depression. 

Ingesting, inhaling, or absorbing methanol can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness, damage to the optic nerve, and blindness. Skin contact with and exposure to disinfectants may cause respiratory irritation, skin allergies, and other severe reactions. Similarly, skin contact with glue may cause irritation or allergic reactions.

Volatile organic compounds emitted by some cleaning agents may cause indoor air pollution. Ingesting detergents may cause gastrointestinal irritation, while prolonged exposure can cause dermatitis. 

Exposure to pesticides may cause skin and eye irritation, respiratory issues, and neurological damage. Chemicals in paint and fumes may contribute to air pollution and pose health risks. Inhaling welding fumes may cause respiratory irritation, coughing, lung damage, and cancer. 

Accumulation of metals such as aluminum, mercury, and lead may cause neurological damage, organ damage, and developmental disorders. 

What’s in a Chemical Hazard Label?

The structure of a chemical hazard label is regulated by the nation’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to reduce the risks and dangers of hazards.

Hazardous Label Elements               

A hazardous label must include the name, address, and phone number of the chemical manufacturer, importer, or additional responsible party. Other key elements include a product identifier, such as a chemical name, code number, or batch number. Signal words, such as “Warning” or “Danger,” and a hazard statement that describes the nature and degree of the hazard(s) should also be included.

A hazardous label will also have precautionary statements that describe measures that can help minimize or prevent adverse effects. These may include prevention to minimize exposure, response to spillage or exposure, storage, and disposal. 

Supplementary information, such as additional hazards, percentage of ingredient(s) of unknown acute toxicity, directions for use, expiration date, and fill date, may also be provided on a hazardous label.

Pictograms are graphic symbols used to communicate specific information about the hazards of a chemical. They improve worker safety and health and are used worldwide.

Protecting Employees Through Chemical Hazard Labels

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) was designed to protect employees from hazardous chemicals in the workplace. Under the HCS, employers are required to provide information to any employee who may become exposed to a hazardous chemical under any condition.

Employer Responsibilities               

Employers are required to maintain labels on containers to ensure they are legible and not defaced, and to 

educate workers about newly-identified hazards not disclosed on the label. In addition, employers must identify and provide a visible safety data sheet (SDS) that contains everything employees need to know about a specific chemical. Employers are also responsible for providing SDSs in the primary language of employees working with hazardous chemicals.

Employee Training on Chemical Hazard Elements & SDSs               

Employees must be trained to recognize and understand label elements and safety data sheets. Training must occur at the time of the employee’s initial assignment and every time a new chemical hazard is introduced in the workplace.

Training must cover signs that may indicate the presence or release of a chemical hazard and methods that may be used to detect a chemical hazard. In addition, employees must be trained on hazards associated with the chemicals in the workplace and ways employees can protect themselves from exposure. 

Employers must ensure training covers details of the hazard communication program, including an explanation of labels received on shipping containers, SDS, and ways they can obtain and use appropriate hazard information.

Reducing Risk

Taking the right precautionary measures, such as training employees to read chemical hazard labels, will reduce the risk of injury in the workplace. Employers must stay up to date on the latest laws and regulations governing chemical hazard labels to protect their employees.

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Occupational Health & Safety, “Chemical Safety”

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Hazard Communication

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “Hazard Communication Standard: Labels and Pictograms”

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “Understanding Chemical Hazards”

Safety Culture, “Protect Your Workplace Against Chemical Hazards”