HAZCOM 101: A Brief Summary of What HazCom Requires

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: February 21st, 2012
Topics: HazCom |

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (known as HazCom) found at 29 CFR 1910.1200 is designed to protect the over 6 million workers from the harmful effects and dangers of working with hazardous chemicals. Here’s a quick overview.

Hazard Assessment & MSDS Development

Organizations that manufacture or import hazardous substances for sale in the US are required to make a hazard determination about the substance and use that information to create appropriate labels for the exterior of the container as well as develop Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) and make them available to all end users when they ship the product.

An MSDS is a document that details all necessary information about a hazardous substance for an employer. Currently there are no standard requirements for the format of an MSDS, but it must contain the following information:

  • The identity used on the label;
  • The chemical and common name(s) of all ingredients which have been determined to be health hazards, and which comprise 1% or greater of the composition (Chemicals identified as carcinogens must be listed if the concentrations are 0.1% or greater.);
  • The chemical and common name(s) of all ingredients which have been determined to present a physical hazard when present in the mixture;
  • Physical and chemical characteristics of the hazardous chemical (such as vapor pressure, flash point);
  • The physical hazards of the chemical, including the potential for fire, explosion, and reactivity;
  • The health hazards of the chemical, including signs and symptoms of exposure, and any medical conditions which are generally recognized as being aggravated by exposure to the chemical;
  • The primary route(s) of entry;
  • The OSHA permissible exposure limit, ACGIH Threshold Limit Value, and any other exposure limit used or recommended by the chemical manufacturer, importer, or employer preparing the material safety data sheet, where available;
  • Whether the hazardous chemical is listed in the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Annual Report on Carcinogens (latest edition) or has been found to be a potential carcinogen in the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monographs (latest editions), or by OSHA;
  • Any generally applicable precautions for safe handling and use which are known to the chemical manufacturer, importer or employer preparing the material safety data sheet, including appropriate hygienic practices, protective measures during repair and maintenance of contaminated equipment, and procedures for clean-up of spills and leaks;
  • Any generally applicable control measures which are known to the chemical manufacturer, importer or employer preparing the material safety data sheet, such as appropriate engineering controls, work practices, or personal protective equipment;
  • Emergency and first aid procedures;
  • The date of preparation of the material safety data sheet or the last change to it; and,
  • The name, address and telephone number of the chemical manufacturer, importer, employer or other responsible party preparing or distributing the material safety data sheet, who can provide additional information on the hazardous chemical and appropriate emergency procedures, if necessary.

The 4 Things Employers Must Do

Employers whose workers use or come in contact with hazardous substances must comply with four key provisions:

  1. Chemical Inventories – at least yearly an employer must survey the workplace and develop a list of all of the hazardous substances presently in use.  The inventory can be in almost any format, but should contain the name of the hazardous chemical and the name and address of either the manufacturer or the distributor.  It is a good idea to sign and date your company’s annual chemical inventory so you can determine when it was last completed.

There are a few notable exceptions to substances that are covered by the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard. They include pesticides that are already regulated under the US Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; food, drugs, cosmetics that are regulated by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; alcohols, wine, beverages intended for nonindustrial use and regulated by the Federal Alcohol Administration Act; and consumer products when used in the manner in which a consumer would use them.  (i.e. an occasional use of a consumer-type cleaning product by an employee in the common kitchen area or desk is not covered by the Hazard Communication Standard, but consumer-type cleaning products used for the bulk of a work shift because the employee is a janitor would not be exempt.

  1. Material Safety Data Sheets – For each substance on the inventory, you should obtain a copy of the most recent MSDS developed by the manufacturer. They are usually packed with the shipment of the substance, but if the MSDS is not in the shipment you need to call, email or visit the website of the manufacturer and get the MSDS on your own.  If for some reason you are unable to obtain a copy of the MSDS, make sure you document your efforts in case of an OSHA inspection.

MSDS must be readily accessible to employees in the work area. In previous years, that meant that an employer needed to have a hard copy of every MSDS.  Because the process of maintaining paper copies of MSDS for companies’ with huge inventories became so cumbersome, OSHA has taken a more relaxed position with regards to the term “readily accessible”.  Employers are now permitted to maintain their MSDS files in a variety of formats:

  • In a computer-based format, provided that all employees are trained in how to retrieve the information in the computer and that there is a back-up system in case the computer system is unavailable.
  • Through some type of fax or email service, where employees are given a telephone number that is staffed 24 hours a day and are able to call the number in order to be sent a copy of the MSDS.
  • Any other format that assures employees can obtain a copy of an MSDS by the end of their work shift if requested.
  1. Labels – Every container of a hazardous substance must have a proper label.  The labels must be in English (Other languages are permissible if you choose, but cannot be substituted for ones in English.), visible, legible and not damaged in any way that makes them difficult or impossible to read.  The labels must contain the following information:
  • The name of the hazardous substance;
  • The name and address of the manufacturer or the distributor; and,
  • Some type of hazard warning that assures your employees can understand what the dangers of the substance are.

The OSHA Standard does not specify the exact type of warning system to be used on the labels. The warning can be either pictures, symbols or text or some other format as long as all employees in the workplace understand what the labels mean and can use them to readily identify the hazards of the substances. Employers typically use the labels that are already affixed to the container when it arrives in the workplace, but they may also use their own internal system as well. Regardless of which method they use, employers need to make sure to replace the label if becomes damaged or unable to be read by workers.

Employers are also allowed to use signage or placards posted in the area where a certain hazardous chemical is stored in lieu of individually-labelled containers as long as it is obvious what is inside the container by it location to the signs or placards.

  1. 4. Communication – Employers must communicate the dangers of the hazardous substances to every employee that uses or comes into contact with it as part of their routine or emergency job duties.  Communication must include a set or written policies and procedures detailing the location, hazards, safe use, storage, and emergency response for each substance. Best practices would also suggest that your written program contain policies on how hazardous substances are ordered in your company so that the smallest amount possible is kept at the work place at all times.  Procedures should also be established for ordering new hazardous substances. The procedure should establish some type of review to assure that some other substance already being used in would work or that the particular substance being requested is the least dangerous possible. It is important to note that many companies have failed to develop these written procedures. In fact, each year the lack of a written Hazard Communication program is one of the most commonly violated standards leading to numerous citations and penalties.


The second type of communication required by an employer is employee training, which must occur before a worker is required to use or come into contact with the hazardous substance and anytime a new hazard is introduced into the work area. See Part 3 below for details on what the training must entail.

If an workplace has multiple employers or if an employer uses contractors or subcontractors, they must also make sure that they provide the other employer(s) with access to MSDSs for each hazardous chemical the other employer(s)’ employees may be exposed to while working and in the other employer(s) of any precautionary measures that need to be taken to protect employees during the workplace’s normal operating conditions and in foreseeable emergencies; and make sure the employer understands the labeling system used in the workplace.


HazCom is a general standard that applies to all chemicals considered dangerous and not covered by one of the exceptions for chemicals and substances regulated by other laws. Note that OSHA has also established substance-specific standards for highly toxic substances like benzene, lead, formaldehyde and methylene chloride.  Each of these standards has additional requirements that employers must comply with regarding their use on the workplace along with the requirements for the Hazard Communication Standard.