GHS labeling requirements include hazard symbols for clear worldwide communication.

Everything You Need to Know About GHS Label Requirements, Guidelines, and Best Practices

The Globally Harmonized System (GHS) for labeling hazardous chemicals was created to simplify the label…but at the same time, it can make it confusing. That’s because, while GHS is a labeling standard recognized internationally, it’s implemented slightly differently in each country. 

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How did it come about? How do you implement it while meeting local standards? Why do some chemical containers need to follow GHS guidelines, and others don’t? Here’s what you need to know to ensure your chemical products are labeled correctly.

Globally Harmonized System: Identifying Hazards Around the World

The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, or “GHS” for short, is a labeling standard established by the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), a cooperative effort by the United Nations and the World Health Organization. The goal of this program is to reduce harm from chemical hazards to people and the environment worldwide. By standardizing chemical warning labels, hazards can be identified no matter where products are shipped. However, GHS label requirements are written in a way that gives individual countries some leeway so they can adapt the standard to their local safety regulations.

GHS was adopted by the United Nations in 2003. However, it was not immediately added to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. OSHA adopted GHS label requirements into their Hazardous Communication Standard (HCS) at the end of 2009. From there, it took years of work to revise regulations and implement GHS into OSHA’s Hazardous Communication (HazCom) regulations. The first GHS standards were introduced in HazCom 2012, and were fully implemented by OSHA in 2016. But it doesn’t end there. GHS continues to evolve, with changes being planned to meet the UN’s Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. We will certainly see these standards change as new standards are rolled into HazCom.

Implementing GHS Labels: Pictograms, Hazard Statements & More

GHS labeling is like a bill of lading for hazards: it’s designed to be used throughout the supply chain, but not always intended for the end user. By standardizing hazard labeling, it’s readable to everyone involved in logistics and warehousing around the world.

While regulations that govern what goes on the label vary from country to country, the format for GHS labels remains the same internationally. For example, all GHS-compliant labeling must include hazard pictograms. However, the environmental risk pictogram is optional in the U.S. but may be required on environmentally hazardous products in other countries.

These labels are required for primary containers, but aren’t always needed on secondary containers. For example, if you have a case full of retail product containers, the case must have the label, but not the containers inside. Instead, the retail packaging may need to follow national labeling regulations set by the Hazardous Materials Identification System (HMIS), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), or other applicable government organizations. If the item isn’t stored in a secondary package, whether it’s shipped individually or on a pallet, it needs a GHS label. This is why you often find these labels on portable propane tanks and bulk pails.

If you want to learn more about U.S. and California chemical label regulations for bulk and retail packaging, check out our blog Labeling System Options for Chemicals.”

What’s on a GHS Label?

All GHS-compliant labels must have the following sections in the order listed:

  • Product Identifier 
  • Supplier Identifier
  • Signal Word
  • Hazard Pictograms
  • Hazard Statement
  • Precautionary Statements


Product Identifier:

This includes the product name and the hazardous ingredients in the container. Codes and batch numbers can be included to help identify the product.

Supplier Identification:

This is the name, address and telephone number of the supplier.

Signal Word:

“Warning” is used for minor hazards, while “Danger” is used for severe hazards. The regulations that decide which word should be used are extensive and complex. In general, “Danger” is usually reserved for chemicals that can cause immediate harm or permanent damage. Less immediate hazards use “Warning.” For example, flammable materials use “Danger” as their signal word, while combustible materials use “Warning.” Only one word is used on the label. If the contents meet the requirements for both words, “Danger” is used.

Hazard Pictograms:

These standard graphics are designed to be interpreted by anyone, regardless of their native language. There are 16 GHS pictograms, covering common potential hazards including ignition, combustion, poison, and corrosion. All hazard symbols are surrounded by a red diamond border to help them stand out. You can see the pictograms and their uses here.

Hazard Statement:

These standardized statements identify the danger involved in handling the product, as well as potential symptoms people may have if they come into contact with it.

Precautionary Statements:

This includes ways to prevent exposure, methods for storing and disposing of the chemical, and what you should do if you’re exposed to the chemical. These are the same statements included on the Safety Data Sheet (SDS), and may be identified using related SDS P-codes.

Applying GHS Labels Onto Products

Since GHS and HCS labels are mostly used on secondary and bulk packaging, you need labeling equipment that can apply labels on large containers.

CTM Labeling’s Front/Back/Wrap Labeling System is perfect for applying multiple labels to boxes (which makes it easy to add the capacity for an additional warning label, or to add corner wrap labels that cover multiple sides of the box). This way, you can use a single label to list both product and hazard information. You can also configure this label machine to add labels for shipping and other identification, applying all the information you need at one station.

  There are a wide range of chemical products shipped in bulk buckets, which is why our Pail Labeling System is extremely popular. It uses our Model 360a label applicator or Model 3600a-PA print and apply applicator as its base. From there, we add a conveyor system that can handle large, heavy pails, and an applicator arm that won’t warp or stretch long labels as they wrap around the container. The print and apply option lets you add lot numbers and other identifying information to each label just before application, and the 3600a-PA can communicate directly with your operating technology system to get this information.

Hazard Information Regulations Can Be a Headache, but Labeling Doesn’t Have to Be!

If you want a labeling system that works seamlessly with your operations, contact CTM Labeling Systems. Our local, knowledgeable distributors will help design a labeling station that can handle your containers and keep pace with your production system. We have machines that work in all environments, from labeling small medicine vials to bulk cold packaging.

GHS labeling requirements are just a small part of the many avenues that we help clients navigate. Don’t go the process alone!

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