What Is the Globally Harmonized System (GHS)?
Businessman Working On Computer

There were 2.7 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2020. This high number damages the lives of individuals while also impacting the flow of business. Finding a way to reduce this number will have a positive impact on everyone.
This is where the Globally Harmonized System helps. This system is designed to reduce accidents and make international business easier to do. 

But what is the Globally Harmonized System, and how does it help? Keep reading to discover the answers to these questions. 

The Problem With Communication

Communication is essential in any workplace. Without communication, it is impossible to let people know what to do and how to do it. Instead, messages are open to misinterpretation or missed altogether. 

This is fine in some situations that deal with low-stakes outcomes. However, it can spell disaster if hazardous materials are in the mix. In these situations, someone may end up exposed to dangerous chemicals or other hazards without even knowing they were in danger. 

Exposure to chemicals and other hazards presents a serious problem. For one, it puts an individual’s life at risk and, thus, harms everyone around them. In addition, it puts a huge legal burden on the company involved. 

Situations like these have the potential to turn extremely bad extremely quickly. The company involved will not only end up facing legal issues but will likely deal with a public relations problem as well. This will hurt the business as a whole, whether the damage comes from a drop in stock price or an unwillingness by some to work with the business in the future. 

This is why many companies try to specifically improve hazardous materials communication in the workplace. Doing so lets employees know when danger is present and lets them know how to avoid it. This prevents problems for individuals as well as the company. 

Global Communication

The world of business is now global and has been for a long time now. There are many businesses that involve shipping materials from one country to another. There are also plenty of businesses that are fully invested in supply chains that stretch across entire continents. 

However, doing business internationally presents a range of problems, as most countries do not speak the same language or use the same methods of communication. When different languages and communication methods all come into the mix, transferring information becomes far more difficult. This leads to situations where people don’t understand what is going on or where they cannot read an important label. 

You probably see how this situation leads to problems. We’ve already discussed how communication is a key way to prevent workplace accidents. So, with limited communication being available in international situations, accidents are bound to happen. 

Imagine a situation where a hazardous substance has a label that says “Danger” in Spanish. If it leaves the Spanish-speaking country and arrives in a non-Spanish-speaking country, the people receiving the shipment may not be able to read the label. So, they will not know that the substance is dangerous at all. 

This is exacerbated by the fact that different countries may use different signs and symbols to classify hazardous materials. One country may use a large red letter to indicate that something is dangerous. However, another country may use that exact same large red letter to indicate that something is safe to handle. 

This will lead to obvious problems. In this case, someone may handle a dangerous substance while thinking they are completely safe. They would simply be unaware of the danger that was right in front of them. 

What is the Globally Harmonized System? 

The Globally Harmonized System (GHS) addresses this problem. This is a system of internationally accepted signs and symbols that designate different types of hazardous material. These are universal and, thus, understood by anyone around the world. 

History of the GHS

In many ways, the GHS was born out of a simple need. The world constantly saw hazardous materials shipped from one country to another while labeled with entirely different systems. Accidents were bound to occur and did occur. 

In the 1990s, world governments put forth an effort to address this problem. They decided that a universal system would be better than the many different individual systems that were currently in play. So, they began to create this system. 

After years and years of work that relied on input from many different governments, the system was ironed out and finally put into place by the UN in 2002. However, the system was essentially just a guideline. Countries weren’t legally obligated to change what they were doing and could have, theoretically, just kept up with their current way of doing things. 

Luckily, people saw the advantage of using such a system. It took a few years for many different countries to start adopting the new system, as it often involved a major change to what was currently taking place. 

However, at this point in time, most major governments across the world have adopted and now enforce the GHS. For example, in the United States, the Hazard Communication Standard maintained by OSHA aligns with the GHS. 

GHS Classification

The GHS itself is basically a classification and labeling system. This breaks down in a few different ways. 

For one, it gives precise classifications regarding the types of hazardous materials out there. These include physical hazards, health hazards, and environmental hazards. 

Physical hazards are anything that causes physical damage. These range from explosions, to corrosive chemicals, to flammable materials. 

Health hazards are things that impact humans directly. These include toxins and pretty much anything that causes damage to the eyes, skin, or other body parts. So, materials that would be harmful if swallowed or generally poisonous will fall under this category. 

Environmental hazards are those that have a particularly negative impact on the environment itself. They include materials that, if spilled into the wild, would hurt or kill plants or animals. 

Making this distinction is important if an accident were to occur. In this case, everyone involved would know exactly what kind of threat was posed and, thus, would have a good idea of how to proceed. 

For example, if a hazardous substance was spilled in a room, workers could check to see what risk it posed. If it was listed as flammable, then they immediately know to specifically avoid bringing an open flame or even creating a spark in the room. This won’t solve the problem but will prevent it from getting worse. 

GHS Labeling

The danger presented by a material isn’t the only piece of information necessary in order to provide a safe working environment. The material also needs to be properly labeled. 

A GHS label needs to have six different parts to it. These include the product name, the signal word, relevant symbols or pictograms, precautionary information, hazard statements, and the company’s contact information. 

The product name lets everyone know what the product is. This may also include ingredients when relevant. 

The signal word is one of two officially designated terms: warning or danger. “Warning” is used in less severe situations while “Danger” is used in more severe situations. Only one of the words will be used at a time. 

Symbols and pictograms are also officially designated. The GHS lays out a number of different symbols and pictograms that indicate exactly what sort of hazard is posed by the material. For example, a skull and crossbones indicate “Acute Toxicity”. 

Precautionary information includes any information that workers should have before dealing with the material. For example, it may indicate that any fumes coming from it are hazardous and, thus, workers should use relevant protection. 

Hazard statements let workers know more about the hazard that is posed. These come from a specific list of official designations. For example, “Combustible liquid,” “Fire or projection hazard,” and “Toxic if swallowed” are all types of hazard statements. 

Finally, the company’s contact information informs everyone where this hazardous material is coming from. In emergencies, this contact information may be necessary in order to retrieve specific information. 

Each of these pieces of information needs to be included on labels that accompany hazardous substances. Together, they let workers know what they are dealing with, how to be safe, and what to do if an accident takes place. 

GHS Benefits

There are a ton of benefits provided by the Globally Harmonized System. Some of these have already been discussed but others are not as obvious. 

For one, it protects the lives of individual workers. By improving safety conditions, workers can stay safe while still dealing with hazardous materials. 

While the short-term implications of this are obvious, it also has the potential to avoid long-term injuries. Workers who wear proper safety equipment around material with an inhalation risk reduce their exposure to this risk. Often, problems like these present as cancers or lung problems later in life, so preventing exposure from happening at all will prevent these problems from coming into play. 

The other major benefit of the GHS is the way it helps save money. Fees are the obvious place to save money. Companies are dealing with fewer accidents and, therefore, have to spend less money on legal and other fees. 

However, companies also benefit from the universal nature of this system. By having a straightforward system that is universal from company to company, they do not have to worry about learning the ins and outs of another company or country’s regulations. Instead, they just have to know the one. 

This saves money in hiring lawyers to figure out the legal details for each system. It also saves money in creating a process designed to handle each system. 

In the end, everyone benefits from the system created by the GHS. This means there are even more reasons to use it. 

Pairing a Globally Harmonized System With Regular Safety

While the GHS is a great system that helps unify safety around the world, it only works if regular safety practices are already in place. Otherwise, it is just a series of labels and warnings. 

First off, companies need to be aware of the specific details regarding the GHS. They should be familiar with the GHS labels and know what they indicate. Training employees to be able to make this distinction will allow them to make good decisions if they come into contact with hazardous materials. 

In addition, companies dealing with hazardous materials need to make sure they are following the GHS guidelines. They need to make sure they are labeling chemicals and other hazardous materials properly and in a way that conforms with guidelines. 

If these regular safety practices are not followed, then the system starts to break down. All the labeling in the world will not accomplish anything if workers ignore the labels entirely. In addition, businesses that are not compliant will prevent attentive workers from staying safe. 

Workplace safety is always important. However, it is critical when dealing with the GHS and the hazardous materials it involves. 

The Impact of the Globally Harmonized System

The Globally Harmonized System is a way to build on communication strategies in a global environment. It improves the messaging a company uses and, by doing so, prevents accidents in the workplace. This makes the lives of workers and the business of the company even better. 

If you are looking for ways to improve workplace safety at your company, make sure to contact the professionals from Kelleher, Helmrich and Associates to learn about the solutions they offer.