OSHA Reviewing Recent U.N. Updates For Inclusion in Hazard Communication Rule

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is reviewing recent revisions to the United Nations Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals for possible inclusion in the U.S. standard for hazard communication, an OSHA official told BNA in Feb. 1.

OSHA would go through the standard rulemaking process if a U.N. amendment represents a significant change to the standard, said Maureen Ruskin, director of the Office of Chemical Hazards-Metals in the agency's Directorate of Standards and Guidance. OSHA also could issue a direct final rule if a U.N. revision is a simple technical change, she added.

OSHA does not have a clear timetable for its consideration of the U.N. changes, spokeswoman Diana Petterson told BNA in a Feb. 5 email.

The U.N. Subcommittee of Experts on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals approved revisions to the manual that spells out the details of GHS requirements, known as the “Purple Book,” during its biennium meeting in December 2012. The changes are expected to be published in the fifth revised version of the Purple Book.

OSHA issued a final rule in March 2012 on its hazard communication standard, which is based on GHS requirements drawn from the third revised edition of the Purple Book (77 Fed Reg. 17,574; 42 OSHR 265, 3/22/12).

Ruskin, who was named as the new chair of the U.N. Subcommittee that oversees GHS revisions, said the December 2012 amendments to the Purple Book were mainly meant to bring clarity, not change criteria.

“Now that many countries are implementing GHS, they're seeing gaps, so revisions were made to close those up,” she said.

Hazard Sections Amended

Ruskin said the editorial changes to sections on physical, environmental, and health hazards stood out the most to her, since they represented the culmination of the previous two or three biennial meetings. Those amendments included revisions to language on mixtures and eye irritants.

The U.N. subcommittee also adopted changes to a section that provides guidance on preparing safety data sheets to include language on new risks created when products are altered. Industry representatives have expressed concern about the change, and the burden it would impose on manufacturers to assess the hazards created by downstream processing of material (42 OSHR 1079, 12/6/12).

More generally, some industry representatives have criticized the process of amending the Purple Book as lacking transparency and the opportunity to comment.

The U.N. panel meets twice a year in Geneva, with the next meeting scheduled for July. Delegations have organized into correspondent groups, which sometimes convene by telephone between meetings, to work on proposals in the form of informal papers. The panel takes action on formal working papers to revise the Purple Book once every two years at the biennium meeting, with the next meeting expected in December 2014.

Process a 'Black Box'?

Lawrence P. Halprin, a partner at Keller and Heckman L.L.P. who has represented industry, calls the process a “black box.” Halprin told BNA Jan. 9 he is concerned that OSHA could “circumvent the rulemaking process” and not fully involve stakeholders by simply adopting changes made at the U.N.

“I wouldn't expect the U.S. delegation [at the U.N. meetings] necessarily to just represent U.S. industry, but to say there's some sort of due process here is just a sham,” Halprin said.

Ruskin responded to that criticism by emphasizing that “anything we do decide to implement would have to go through some rulemaking process--it will not bypass those processes.”

Collecting Views in Person, Online

The U.S. government has started holding public forums prior to the U.N. meetings to gather views, Ruskin said. OSHA also hosts a web portal for collecting comments.

The informal working papers are available on the U.N.'s website, she said, so stakeholders can see what issues are in play. The formal working papers that will be considered for action are available online at least two or three months prior to biennium meetings, she added.

Regardless of her elevation to chair of the U.N. panel, Ruskin said she's still heading the U.S. delegation and running the interagency group that develops the U.S. position on GHS revisions in the lead-up to the biennium meetings. Her role will change at the meetings when the panel is in session, and another member of the delegation will speak for the United States.

“When I'm sitting there as chair during the plenary sessions it will be my job to build consensus, while of course taking into account the U.S. point of view as well,” Ruskin said.

Work on 2014 Proposals Under Way

The U.N. Subcommittee has already begun work on possible revisions for consideration in December 2014. For instance, there's an informal paper on revising Section 9 of the safety data sheets, which identifies physical and chemical properties associated with a substance or mixture.

“This could be a very big change to GHS that expands safety data sheet content by tweaking current physical and chemical properties in the section and adding information about safety characteristics,” Derek D. Swick, a senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, told BNA Jan. 18. “This is just one example of one paper.”

By Robert Iafolla  

A report on revisions adopted at the December 2012 biennium meeting is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=sbra-94nn2q.

A list of issues for possible action at the December 2014 biennium meeting is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=sbra-94nn5w.