Written by Steve Hudgik July 2013
OSHA's current Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) now conforms with the standard used in most of the world. This is called the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). This system provides a consistent labeling system that can be understood anywhere, in any country, any culture, and any language. Because people speak many languages the use of pictograms to communicate hazard information is critical. Standard GHS pictograms have been created, each of which has a standard definition that can be understood anywhere.
There are nine GHS pictograms. They communicate information about health, physical, and environmental hazards. OSHA requires the use of eight of these pictograms. The ninth GHS pictogram warns about hazards to the environment, which does not fall under OSHA's jurisdiction. The GHS pictograms are shown below.
GHS Pictograms Definitions
The following lists the hazards represented by each GHS pictogram:
GHS Pictogram: Flame Over Circle
GHS labels with this pictogram identify materials that are oxidizers. Oxidizers supply the oxygen required for a fuel to burn, or for an explosion to happen. For example, an explosion is the rapid oxidation of an explosive material.
GHS Pictogram: Flame
This pictogram identifies materials that will readily burn. These materials are:
- Materials that emit flammable gas
- Organic peroxides
These are materials that are explosive. They include:
- Organic peroxides
Organic peroxides are listed under both the "flame" pictogram and the "exploding bomb" pictogram. Organic peroxides are unstable compounds that react differently based on the type of organic peroxide and its concentration. They easily decompose, giving off heat as they decompose. Some may decompose slowly giving off fumes that are combustible. Other may heat up as they decompose and be self-igniting. Others are very unstable and can easily explode.
Skull and Crossbones
This pictogram identifies poisonous materials that have an acute toxicity. This means that a single exposure is often fatal with 14 days.
A corrosive is a substance that will dissolve, destroy, or damage objects it contacts. It is immediately dangerous to living tissues. In people corrosives cause:
- Loss of skin and body tissues
- Eye damage
Corrosives typically will dissolve metals. Corrosives include acids, bases (such as alkalis), and oxidizers.
Gases under pressure, known as compressed gas, present a number of dangers.
For example, should a gas cylinder begin to leak the reaction forces can send the cylinder rocketing or cartwheeling through an area causing a physical hazard.
Gas cylinders often contain flammable gases which present both a fire hazard and a possible explosion hazard should a cylinder leak. Cylinders may also contain oxidizers that react violently with other materials.
Cylinders can present invisible hazards. For example, cylinders may contain an inert gas such as nitrogen, helium or argon. Leaks from these cylinders can reduce oxygen levels such that people lose consciousness or die from asphyxiation.
This is a more general category that identifies materials that are harmful to human health. For example, this symbol identifies materials that are capable of causing cancer (carcinogens) or mutations (mutagenicity). The types of materials that cause health hazards include:
- Reproductive toxicity
- Respiratory sensitizer
- Toxic to specific organs
- Aspiration toxicity
This is the pictogram that is not required by OSHA because it lies outside their jurisdiction. It identifies materials that have a aquatic toxicity and thus are harmful to the environment. Although not required by OSHA this GHS pictogram should be used when appropriate.
The exclamation mark provides a general warning about substances that are harmful. This includes:
- Irritants (skin and eye)
- Skin sensitizers
- Acute toxicity (harmful)
- Narcotic effects
- Respiratory tract irritant
- Hazardous to ozone layer (an environmental hazard designation, not required by OSHA)
Common Questions about GHS Pictograms
The following are answers to some of the common questions being asked about GHS pictograms.
Can pictograms with a black border be used if the shipment will stay within the U.S.?
GHS pictograms must always have a red border. The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) requires that all pictograms have red borders in order to have a consistency that results in increased recognition and comprehension.
Does OSHA allow blank red borders (no pictogram within a red diamond)?
The OSHA (HCS) requires that all red diamonds (red borders) on the label have a pictogram within the red border area. OSHA is concerned that if blank red borders were allowed, people might be confused and become concerned that information is missing. Thus, OSHA prohibits the use of blank red borders on labels.
When must GHS labels be updated?
When new information on a hazard becomes available, the GHS label must be updated. It does not matter whether you are a chemical manufacturer, importer, distributor, or an employer who becomes aware of significant new information regarding the hazards of a chemical, you are responsible for replacing the the labels for the chemicals with your control within six months.
Have workplace labeling requirements changed under GHS?
OSHA's HCS gives employers flexibility concerning the type of labeling system used in their workplaces. Employers may label workplace containers with either the same label that is on the shipping containers, or they may use an alternative label, as long as the label meets the requirements of OSHA's HCS. Alternative labeling systems include the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704 Hazard Rating system and the Hazardous Material Information System (HMIS). However, these labels must have the information required by the OSHA HCS, and there may not be any conflicting hazard warnings or pictograms.
The information presented in this document was obtained from sources that we deem reliable; Graphic Products does not guarantee accuracy or completeness. Graphic Products, Inc. makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied. Users of this document should consult municipal, state, and federal code and/or verify all information with the appropriate regulatory agency.