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The OSHA Lab Standard and the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard: Which Standard Applies in Your Workplace?

It’s not always straightforward to determine if the OSHA Lab Standard or the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard applies at a given facility. Often it’s either one standard or the other, but in some cases, both standards will apply. Making the correct determination is critical as it dictates the type of written safety manual that has to be in place (Hazard Communication Program vs. Chemical Hygiene Plan), the required content of the safety training, and other essential aspects of safety program implementation.

Background on the Standards

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200), or Hazcom Standard, was published in 1983 to cover chemical use in manufacturing industries. In 1987 it was amended to apply to all industries where employees are exposed to hazardous chemicals. It was updated again in 2012 to align with the third revision of the UN Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. More recently, in February 2021, OSHA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to update the Hazcom Standard to align it with the seventh revised edition of the GHS. OSHA is not expected to issue a final rule until late in 2021 at the earliest.

In 1990, OHSA promulgated the OSHA Laboratory Standard (29 CFR 1910.1450, Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories). OSHA felt that the laboratory setting was unique and that chemical exposures warrant a separate lab-specific standard for chemical safety. In a 1990 OSHA standard interpretation letter, OSHA noted that laboratories generally have many hazardous chemicals present to which exposures are intermittent rather than a few substances to which there are routine exposures. The Laboratory Standard superseded the Hazcom Standard for laboratories that meet the Laboratory Standard definitions of laboratory, laboratory use, and laboratory scale.

Laboratory means a facility where the laboratory use of hazardous chemicals occurs. It is a workplace where relatively small quantities of hazardous chemicals are used on a non-production basis. Laboratory scale means work with substances in which the containers used for reactions, transfers, and other handling of substances are designed to be easily and safely manipulated by one person. It’s important to note that the definition of laboratory-scale excludes those workplaces whose function is to produce commercial quantities of materials.

Determining Applicability

For a facility to be covered by the Lab Standard all of the following must apply:

  • Chemical manipulations are performed at laboratory scale
  • Multiple chemicals and procedures are used
  • Protective laboratory controls are available and in common use to minimize exposure potential
  • Procedures are not part of a production process, nor in any way simulate a production process

It’s not always obvious as to what is considered a production process. A production process means an operation where a product is produced. Examples of production facilities are manufacturing plants, refineries, and utility-generating companies. A company’s Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code is not used as criteria for scope of coverage!

As I mentioned, for those laboratories covered under the Laboratory Standard, the requirements of the Hazcom Standard are superseded, and the Laboratory Standard takes precedence. However, the Laboratory Standard does incorporate some Hazcom Standard requirements:

  • Employers must ensure that labels on incoming containers of hazardous chemicals are not removed or defaced
  • Employers must maintain any safety data sheets (SDS) that are received with incoming shipments of hazardous chemicals, and ensure that they are readily accessible to laboratory employees

In most cases, typical research laboratories are covered under the Laboratory Standard only. However, not all types of labs are covered by the OSHA Lab Standard! The Standard specifically exempts:

  • Quality control (QC)/quality assurance (QA) laboratories which are classified as adjuncts of production are therefore covered under the Hazcom Standard (Note that there are cases where QA/QC operations remain part of the research activity or where the quality control work is neither part of nor related to, a production process. In these instances, the Laboratory Standard would apply.)
  • Labs that use hazardous chemicals which provide no potential for employee exposure. Examples of these would be the use of test media such as “dip and read” tests or commercially prepared diagnostic test kits

In some cases, both standards can apply at a facility! For instance, if a research and development (R&D) facility adds a manufacturing suite where hazardous chemicals are used, and a QA/QC lab to support the manufacturing process, then both Standards would apply; the Lab Standard for the R&D labs and the Hazcom Standard for the manufacturing suite and QA/QC lab.

For additional information about the OSHA Lab Standard and Hazcom Standard, or for assistance in determining the applicability of them at your facility, please email [email protected].

This blog was written by Beth Graham, our Associate Director of Quality, Research, and Training who has been with Safety Partners Inc. for the last 11 years.

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