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December 14, 2015

HCS: OSHA Issues Letter of Interpretation on Import/Export Labels for Hazard Communication Standard (HCS 2012)

The ACTA Group

On November 23, 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a Letter of Interpretation (LOI) on labeling packages for import and export. The LOI discusses labeling scenarios and details OSHA’s interpretation of the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS 2012) requirements for those scenarios.


On May 26, 2012, OSHA issued a final rule modifying its HCS to conform to the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), Revision 3. In the final rule, OSHA drastically modified the process by which hazards are classified and the information elements required on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), now called Safety Data Sheets (SDS), as well as labels. The regulatory implementation phase is underway; the deadline for all labels and SDSs to meet the new criteria was June 1, 2015. This deadline included all regulated entities except distributors, who were allowed to ship products with the old labels until December 1, 2015. Under HCS 2012, employees must update their written hazard communication programs and provide additional employee training for newly-identified hazards by June 1, 2016. The LOI provides OSHA’s interpretation of the labeling requirements for companies that are importing products from foreign suppliers/manufacturers, and describes processes for several scenarios for companies exporting products.

Key Points

In 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1200(c), OSHA defines “importers” as the first business with employees within the Customs Territory of the United States that receives hazardous chemicals produced in other countries for the purpose of supplying them to distributors or employers within the United States. The LOI discusses the labeling responsibilities of the importer and indicates the responsibility “to assure appropriate labels are on incoming containers of hazardous chemicals (i.e., labels are HCS 2012-compliant) begins when the importer takes control of the containers of hazardous chemicals.” The LOI also mentions Directive Number CPL 02-02-079: Inspection Procedures for the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS 2012) Section X.F.2.h that contains details on the continued limited use of HCS 1994-compliant labels for cases where products were shipped prior to June 1, 2015.

The LOI describes three situations for the labeling hazardous chemicals intended for export. In each situation, OSHA provides accommodations for these situations with the understanding in most of them that there is no anticipated worker exposure during the standard handling of these products.

The first accommodation is for sealed containers of hazardous chemicals that are prepared for direct export and placed inside U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) approved or equivalent containers. OSHA requires the inner most container of hazardous chemicals to be labeled. In this accommodation, OSHA is allowing for the outside container to be labeled when the outside package is in compliance with DOT and/or International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations. OSHA states that the outside package in this scenario should contain the HCS 2012-compliant label, or be provided as part of the shipping documentation.

The second situation is for direct shipment where the sealed container is temporarily stored prior to export. OSHA indicates that the external packaging must be labeled in accordance with 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1200(f)(6). The packaging should either contain the requirements of the shipped container as detailed in 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1200(f)(1)(i) – (v), or the label should contain the “[p]roduct identifier and words, pictures, symbols, or combination thereof, which provide at least general information regarding the hazards of the chemicals, and which, in conjunction with the other information immediately available to employees under the hazard communication program, will provide employees with the specific information regarding the physical and health hazards of the hazardous chemical.” In addition, the package must contain the details outlined in the first scenario described above. 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1200(f)(6)(ii).

The third situation is for direct shipment where the sealed container is stored in a third-party location (i.e., off-site manufacturer or third party warehouse). OSHA states that these operations must follow the requirements described in 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1200(b)(4), e.g., the employer “shall ensure that labels on incoming containers of hazardous chemicals are not removed or defaced,” along with other obligations including maintaining copies of the SDSs and employee training. In addition, the package must contain the information required in the first situation described above.


The LOI offers clarification to importers along with accommodations to exporters for labeling sealed containers of hazardous chemicals. OSHA defines container as any bag, barrel, bottle, box, can, cylinder, drum, reaction vessel, storage tank, or the like that contains a hazardous chemical. Judicious review of how these accommodations apply to individual manufacturing/importing operations is recommended, as it is clear that not all containers as defined by OSHA would be considered amenable to these accommodations.