The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, or GHS for short, is an international system that the United Nations began developing in the 1990s. Even if you’re not familiar with the GHS, you probably are familiar with the GHS pictograms that many organizations use to label chemicals and other substances that could potentially be harmful to those who come in contact.

Hazard Classification

One of the primary goals of GHS is to classify potential hazards, and the GHS classification system currently has nine categories, including explosives, flammable liquids and oxidizing substances. Each GHS classification is further defined by itemizing the various hazards the category presents, including physical, health and environmental, as well as defining how mixtures that contain chemicals in a particular category should be labeled based on the derivation.

Hazard Communication

Once a substance has been categorized as a hazard, the potential for danger must be communicated to a general public that may have no special knowledge of the substance in question. This is where the concepts of GHS lables and GHS pictograms come into play. GHS lables can be composed of a number of different elements, including symbols, signal words and even hazard statements. When necessary, safety labels may also include warnings, product identifiers, supplier identifiers and so forth.

The GHS Mission

The core purpose of GHS is to have consistent safety labels in use throughout the world. This helps protect people who travel but is particularly important for the transportation of hazardous materials. Warning signs that are obvious to Chinese workers, for example, may have no relevance to workers in Canada or elsewhere in North America. Adoption has been slow, however. Consider that the U.S. did not formally adopt the GHS until 2012, and Canada did not begin implementing it until 2015.

GHS Roadblocks

So why has this system that provides global benefits been embraced so slowly? The main problem is the most developed countries already had systems in place. Both Canada and the U.S., for instance, had their own systems and had already together achieved consistency for North America. So embracing GHS means retrofitting an existing system. The U.S. had to change OSHA in order to conform to the GHS, and Canada chose to create a new national system called the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, which accounts for Canada, North America and GHS.

GHS Is Not a Law

GHS is a system, not a law. WHMIS, for instance, is enforceable by law, and since it incorporates GHS, enforces GHS legally. Countries who participate in GHA are not required to do this, however, and it can and does lead to some inconsistency. The hope, however, is that a worldwide standard for the classification and labeling of hazardous chemicals can eventually be achieved. Learn more information at ICC Compliance Center, which has more online resources available.

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