Quick & Dirty Guide to GHS Chemical Labels

Editor’s note: This article was updated March, 2021.

First developed by the United Nations, GHS standards were adopted by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 2012. By 2018 all U.S. businesses were required to have fully transitioned to GHS compliance.

This article will cover the most common GHS FAQs, the basics of what you need to know to start working towards GHS compliance right away and tips for creating your own GHS chemical labels.

What is GHS?

GHS is the system that OSHA requires for classifying and labeling hazardous chemicals. The system includes GHS chemical labels, safety data sheets (SDS) and classification categories. 

What does GHS stand for?

GHS stands for Globally Harmonized System. It is the shorthand way to refer to the system outlined in the U.N. document, Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, also known as “The Purple Book.“

What are GHS standards?

In general, GHS standards are the specific requirements for GHS chemical labels, SDS and chemical classification outlined in The Purple Book. OSHA is fully aligned with the GHS standards under Hazard Communication Standard 1910.1200.

Commonly called HazCom, the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) can also sometimes be referred to as OSHA GHS standards or OSHA-compliant GHS standards. In the U.S. it is common to hear OSHA GHS standards and HazCom used interchangeably.

Do GHS chemical labels standards apply to you?

OSHA requires any business that manufactures, imports or distributes hazardous chemicals to practice chemical safety in the workplace, which includes using proper GHS chemical labels. Failure to keep GHS chemical labels updated and well-maintained is one of the top 10 OSHA violations year after year.

You need to follow OSHA regulations for GHS chemical labels if you:

  • Manufacture chemicals
  • Import or distribute chemicals
  • Are an employer with hazardous chemicals in the workplace

It’s worth noting there are exceptions for household cleaners and sanitizers that are used in the same way an average consumer would use them. For example, bleach wipes for employees to wipe down their personal work station. Not to mention secondary container gray areas.

Additionally, some workplaces such as laboratories have their own specific regulations for labeling hazardous chemicals.

GHS chemical labels for primary vs. secondary containers

A primary container is the container in which chemicals arrive to your facility (or the containers you store/ship chemicals in if you manufacture or distribute chemicals). Secondary containers are any container that chemicals are transferred into from a primary container.

Primary containers should always have fully compliant GHS chemical labels. Period. Secondary containers, for example, a diluted bleach solution used for disinfecting, are a bit of a gray area because specific conditions must be present for the secondary container to be exempt.

GHS chemical labels for secondary containers can be quite tricky, but there are specific tips you can follow to ace OSHA secondary container labeling requirements. When in doubt always go with full GHS chemical labels for all hazardous chemicals in your facility.

What do GHS chemical labels include?

There are six elements that all GHS chemical labels for primary containers must include in order to avoid HazCom violations. This information is typically found in the coordinating SDS for the chemical.

  1. Product Name/Identifier. This should match the product identifier on the safety data sheet.
  2. Signal Word. Signal words ensure GHS chemical labels indicate the relative severity of the hazard.
  3. Hazard Statement. The nature of the hazard must be described on GHS chemical labels.
  4. Globally standardized symbols convey health, physical and environmental information to transcend language barriers.
  5. Supplier Identification. GHS chemical labels must include name, address and telephone number of the supplier.
  6. Precautionary Statements. Any measures that could be employed to minimize and/or prevent effects of the hazard must be communicated on GHS chemical labels. This includes first aid.

Pro tip for creating your own GHS chemical labels

Manually entering GHS chemical label information takes a lot of time and, of course, increases the chance of human error. You can create compliant GHS chemical labels in under five minutes with Avery GHS Wizard® label design software.

Using a predesigned template and the CAS or chemical name, the GHS Wizard fills in product identifier, signal work, hazard statements, precautionary statements and GHS pictograms for you. The database of substances includes over 300,000 pure, mixed and branded chemicals

Once your GHS chemical labels have been filled in, you can use the SDS to double check the information. This process increases efficiency and helps reduce inaccuracies to ensure the information on your GHS chemical labels is compliant. 

GHS chemical label durability

GHS chemical labels need to be intact and legible when you are inspected by OSHA. Missing, damaged or illegible labels can result in a citation and costly OSHA penalties up to $134,937 per violation for failure to abate.

Best practices for GHS chemical labels is to ensure they are durable enough to withstand wear and tear in heavy duty environments where chemicals are stored and/or used. In general, GHS chemical labels should be waterproof and resist chemicals, abrasion and tearing.

BS5609 certification for GHS chemical labels

If you are shipping chemicals via ocean freight, they must have GHS chemical labels that comply with standards set forth by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). This includes the British Standard BS5609.

Essentially, BS5609 Section 2 outlines requirements for the blank labels themselves. BS5609 Section 3 outlines requirements for labels once they are printed. GHS chemical labels must pass both BS5609 Section 2 and 3 to achieve compliance.

BS5609-compliant GHS chemical labels can withstand being submerged in salt water for up to three months. If a chemical drum falls off a ship, for example, the label must remain adhered, intact and legible after an extended period in the ocean.

Learn more about BS5609 label durability for marine and extreme environments.

Pro tip for printing GHS chemical labels

There are three ways you can print durable and/or BS5609-compliant GHS chemical labels:

1) Printing onsite with standard printers. Extremely flexible and efficient, this method requires durable blank GHS chemical labels engineered to work with approved laser or pigment inkjet printers.

2) Printing thermal transfer labels onsite. Printing thermal GHS chemical labels requires a two-color (black and red) thermal transfer printer and GHS thermal transfer label rolls.

3) Custom printing services. Professional GHS chemical label printers will know how to automatically choose the best ink and/or printing method for the label material.

Explore more GHS chemical label solutions

Please note, the contents of this article and related articles on avery.com/industrial are for informational purposes only, are general in nature, and are not intended to and should not be relied upon or construed as a legal opinion or legal advice regarding any specific issue or factual circumstance.