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OSHA GHS Pictograms for Labels of Hazardous Materials

Updated on April 26, 2014
The 9 GHS pictograms
The 9 GHS pictograms | Source

How the GHS Pictograms came about

The OSHA GHS pictograms arose from the need to have a harmonized way of communicating the potential hazards that may injure a worker in the cause of their duties. OSHA recognized the need to use the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) pictograms so as to remove the confusion in the earlier HAZCOM standard.

The original Hazard Communication standard published in 1983 was meant to ensure that workers had information and training concerning the hazards of substances they were exposed to while at work. One of the major requirements of the standard was container labelling.

While the standard required manufacturers to provide specific information about hazards on container labels, it did not specify that any specific format had to be followed.

Due to this, container labels took on an array of formats which caused confusion to workers who were bombarded with different labels from different manufacturers. This was despite the fact that the information been conveyed was basically the same.

GHS standard for labelling of chemicals

The HAZCOM standard was therefore not meeting its original objective of informing workers on the exact substances they were exposed to and the hazards they posed. The workers were also not adequately informed on how to protect themselves from these substances.

To address these concerns, a revision of the HAZCOM standard was done in 2012. Among the revisions to the standard was how the labelling of containers was to be done. The new revised labelling standards require that manufacturers follow a specific format for container labels.

In addition to this, there is now a standardized hazard classification system in place. The HAZCOM standard also requires that employers train their staff on how to read and understand the new GHS labelling system.

OSHA adopted the labelling requirements of the GHS, which stands for the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. Because the GHS is a standardized system, there will be consistency in the information appearing in the labels once the system is fully adopted. The system was developed by the United Nations and will soon be adopted globally by all countries.

Do you know the meaning of the pictograms on chemical labels?

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GHS label information

Information appearing on labels under the new standard is as follows:

  • Product identifier which the name of the product or specific name of the chemical. The identifier will also match the information on the Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for the product
  • Signal word of which there are only two under GHS: “Danger” indicates a relatively severe or immediate hazard or “Warning” which is a less severe but still potentially harmful level of hazard
  • Hazard statements are standardized and give employees warnings about hazards that are associated with the product. These statements differ according to the classification and category of hazards presented by the product
  • Precautionary statements are standardized in the GHS labelling system and in general convey information on how to prevent and lessen exposure to chemicals. They also specify considerations for storage of the product, first aid procedures in case of accidental overexposure, and information on how to respond to accidental spill or release. Information on safe disposal of the product is also provided in the precautionary statements.

Any additional health and safety information can be found on the product’s Safety Data Sheets (SDS). GHS complaint labels must also display the following information:

  • Supplier information which includes name of manufacturer or distributor, address and telephone number
  • Supplemental information about the product such as directions for its use and where applicable, the expiration date of the product
  • Pictograms which are icons that warn workers on the hazards posed by the products they are handling. The pictograms are standards under the GHS system and there are nine applicable icons that are used.

GHS pictograms on labels

These are standardized icons that alert the user of the various hazards of a product in a container. There are nine different pictograms that are used in the GHS labelling system.

Pictograms will appear on all container labels, each one depicting a different health or safety hazard applicable to the product in a container. Some labels may have only one pictogram because there is only one class of hazards associated with it. However, most labels will probably display multiple pictograms.

The pictograms appearing on a product can also be found on the product safety data sheets (SDS) for that product. The safety data sheets give more detailed information about hazards and recommended precautions for their usage.

Flame Pictogram

This is associated with flammable liquids, solids and aerosols and will appear on labels for those products. The flame pictogram will also appear on labels of products that emit flammable gas, pyrophoric (which can ignite within minutes of been exposed to air), self-heating chemicals, self-reactives and organic peroxides (which are found in many products such as catalysts and curing agents.

Flame over circle ghs pictogram
Flame over circle ghs pictogram | Source

Flame over circle Pictogram

This pictogram identifies chemicals that are known as oxidizers. While similar in appearance to the flame pictogram, oxidizers are materials that cause or contribute oxygen to the combustion process. They make materials burn more rapidly than they normally would and care must be taken to avoid storing these products near flammable or combustible materials.

Exploding bomb Pictogram

This pictogram appears on products that are explosive. It can also be found on labels for self-reactive products and also for organic peroxides.

Compressed gas cylinder Pictogram

These pictograms will appear on labels of cylinders of compressed gas under pressure. Care must be taken when handling these cylinders because under the right conditions, a broken regulator or valve can cause the cylinder to become a projectile.

Also, when a compressed gas leaks into an enclosed space, it can fill up the space and cause an oxygen deficient atmosphere. Some gases are liquefied so that they can be placed inside a cylinder.

These gases rapidly expand and cool when released from the cylinder and can cause frostbite injuries if they body comes into contact with them.

Corrosion Pictogram

This pictogram will appear on labels affixed to containers of corrosive chemicals and products. These substances cause chemical burns, skin corrosion and eye damage. They can also be corrosive to metals and can corrode other containers leading to even more hazards when different substance mix with each other.

Skull and crossbones Pictogram

This represents chemicals that present an acute toxicity hazard. The toxic effects of over-exposure to these chemicals can be fatal as the effects happen relatively fast.

Health hazard Pictogram

It identifies toxic chemicals and products that can cause health problems over a long period of time. These substances include carcinogens, respiratory sensitizers and mutagens (which can cause alteration of the DNA structure). The substances can cause reproductive damage, allergic reactions, organ damage and aspiration toxicity.

Exclamation Pictogram

This is a general icon that represents chemicals that have a relatively lower level of hazards but still require precautions to be taken. These chemicals include irritants to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract and skin sensitizers.

The substances may also cause acute toxicity and have a narcotic effect on the central nervous system. The pictograms may also include substance that have a negative effect on the ozone layer, though these are not covered under OSHA as they do not have a direct effect on the health of the worker.

Environment Pictogram

This pictogram represents substances that have a toxic effect to aquatic and land animals. The inclusion of this icon is not mandatory under OSHA because it does not directly affect the health and safety of the worker.

The icon may be required by regulations that are under other government departments such as the Department of Transport (DOT).

These pictograms are very important as an informational tool and at least one or more will appear on all container labels and safety data sheets (SDS). In-house labelling systems must also comply with regulations under OSHA.


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