Open-access content 11th May 2012
Hazard labels on commercial and household chemical products are changing as part of a United Nations drive for global standardisation
17 May 2012
Anyone familiar with cleaning products, either at home or at work, may have noticed new symbols on an array of industrial and household cleaning product labels, and on products such as paints, varnishes and weedkillers. Changes are not just to symbols, but also to hazard categories and hazard category statements.
The changes are as a result of the European Union's adoption of the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, known simply as the GHS. This in itself is not a regulation or a standard. Rather, it establishes a hazard classification and communication best practice system and contains information on how to apply this.
Countries and trading blocks adopting the GHS then implement the suggestions through their own regulatory processes and procedures.
Why the need for change?
According to the Chemical Hazards Communication Society (CHCS), which aims to provide information and training guidance about chemical hazards regulations and international codes, they will make life easier for businesses when they import and export products, and consumers when they travel because there will eventually only be one set of symbols to deal with throughout most of the world.
The new regulations
In the EU, GHS is being implemented through the European Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008 on Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures, known as the CLP Regulation, which is being adopted by all EU member states. Negotiations around the regulation took place between EU member states (with the UK represented by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)), the Council and the European Parliament between July 2007 and June 2008.
The CLP Regulation became law in all EU member states on 20 January 2009, subject to a transitional period until 1 June 2015 when it will be fully implemented. This lengthy period gives suppliers, the facilities management and cleaning industries and users time to comply with and get used to the changes. The exact timing of the transition varies, though, depending on whether the chemical being packaged is a pure substance or a component in a mixture of chemicals.
Substances had to be classified, labelled and packaged to comply with the new regulations by 1 December 2010, although those already in stores on that date can continue to be sold until 1 December 2012. Mixtures have to comply with the new regulations by 1 June 2015, although substances already in stores can continue to be sold until 1 June 2017.
The main changes
The symbols representing the hazards look different and replace the old orange and black hazardous substance rectangular symbols. There are now only nine hazard symbols, coloured black on a white background with a red diamond shaped border.
Most of the pictures on the symbols are the same, such as those for substances that are toxic (the skull), flammable (the fire), corrosive (the test tube and hand), oxidising (the flame and circle), dangerous to the environment (the fallen tree) and explosive (the bomb). But there are some new symbols for gases under pressure (a horizontal gas container) and chronic health hazards such as cancer and respiratory sensitisation (a person).
The St Andrew's cross indicating harmful or irritant chemicals is replaced by an exclamation mark symbol, which applies to irritant substances and category 4 acute toxicity.
New hazard categories are being implemented. Each category has a corresponding identification code that correlates to a hazard statement or a precautionary statement. The statement, but not the code, now appears on the packaging.
The old CHIP hazard category statements (such as Toxic, Very Toxic, Irritant, Corrosive) is replaced by just two signal words "Warning" or "Danger", depending on the hazard category. Packaging must now use either word, unless it is deemed of such low hazard to not require one. Danger refers to more severe hazards and warning refers to less severe hazards.
What action to take?
Organisations and individuals using chemical products should update relevant documentation containing risk and safety phrases to reflect any new hazard and precautionary statements. Close attention should be paid to updating warning symbols in the areas where substances are stored.
Until full implementation, organisations may still buy containers labelled in the old way (substances until 1 June 2012, mixtures until 1 June 2017). But steps should also be taken to replace old style labels on containers with the new style red diamond frame with the black hazard symbol.
Fortunately, under the new system organisations do not have to re-do their COSHH risk assessments, even though risk or safety phrases are being replaced with hazard or precautionary statements. A COSHH assessment concentrates on the hazards and risks from substances in any workplace. The latest COSHH form has been updated to reflect the changes.
For more information on the changes, the HSE refers chemical suppliers and any other affected parties to guidance from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) (echa.europa.eu). To help everyone get accustomed to the new labels, the CHCS has created a guide that can be downloaded from a specially created website at www.understandthelabel.org.uk.
Paul Sambrook is group commercial director at facilities services provider Servest Multi Service Group