What is HAZCOM?

Caution hazardous materials

Understanding HAZCOM Standards

Organizations all over the world manufacture, import, handle, and store chemicals on a regular basis. Chemicals are used across all types of industries to get all types of jobs done, but some are much more dangerous than others.

Harmful chemicals are virtually everywhere; toxic chemicals like ammonia are used in commercial refrigerating, paint gives off volatile organic compounds, and even the gas in your vehicle has the potential to explode. Chemicals can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, splashed in the eye, or swallowed orally.  Some chemicals are hazardous in minuscule amounts while some react disastrously with common compounds like water. With the potential to cause severe and permanent damage in just a few moments, communicating safe chemical practices is absolutely essential.

HAZCOM, or hazard communication, encompasses a set of processes and procedures employers and manufacturers must follow to ensure the risks associated with a chemical are effectively conveyed. The most widely-used HAZCOM standard is the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, developed in the 1990s. Since its development, many governments and organizations have aligned their own standards with GHS including OSHA.

Bottles with GHS hazcom label

Four Elements of HAZCOM

As it says in the name, labeling is an important part of GHS. All hazardous chemicals must be marked with a GHS compliant label: a black and white labeling featuring red diamonds. The label includes a signal word (WARNING or DANGER), a precautionary statement (safety precautions that must be taken when working with this chemical), a hazard statement (brief description of associated hazards), and GHS hazard pictograms (universal symbols conveying a specific message).


OSHA announce its alignment with GHS in 2012, and as of 2015 every workplace is required to meet HCS standards. In addition to the new labeling requirements, the update included changes to hazard classification, the shift from Material Safety Data Sheets to Safety Data Sheets, and improved training. OSHA takes HCS violations very seriously and will issue citations when issues are found during an inspection.

Another type of hazard communication system is known as HMIS, or the Hazardous Materials Identification System. HMIS uses color bars similar to the NFPA diamond, and a sliding scale to rank hazards. It evaluates and assigns a numerical rating for level of health hazard, level of flammability, and level of physical hazard. There is also a designated section for recommended PPE. 

Communication is key, specifically when it comes to hazardous chemicals. GHS sets forth a standardized system for hazcom, erasing the risk of miscommunication or confusion even for substances shipped internationally. It is a framework that makes adoption and implementation of the standards simple, keeps you in compliance with regulations, and employees safe from dangerous chemicals.

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