Tell It Like It Is: OSHA’s Employee Right to Know Law - BodyShop Business

Tell It Like It Is: OSHA’s Employee Right to Know Law

Developed in response to dangerous workplaces where employees were unknowingly working with potentially lethal chemicals, OSHA’s Employee Right to Know law is the most frequently violated regulation in body shops. Obviously, there are several things shop owners don’t know.

Are you using paint at your body shop? Do your employees ever handle thinner?

“Well of course!” you say.

In that case, have your employees been educated on the health hazards associated with these chemicals?

If your answer is no, then you’re probably not in compliance with the Federal Hazard Communication Standard (OSHA 1910.1200).

“The federal what?” you ask.

Ask no more. After reading this article, you’ll understand what the standard is, what it means to you and where to find information to make compliance easier.

What You Need to Know
Complying with the “Hazcom Standard” or the “Right to Know” law (as it’s commonly referred to) is important for many reasons.

First, it’s important to employee health because employees need to know the hazards associated with the chemicals they work with and how to protect themselves from over-exposure. In fact, the standard was originally developed in response to dangerous workplaces where employees were unknowingly required to work with potentially lethal chemicals. Unscrupulous employers didn’t tell their employees of the dangers, nor did they provide them with personal protective equipment. In some cases, employees actually died from working with chemicals they didn’t know were harmful.

Second, the standard is relatively new and heavily enforced by OSHA compliance officers. According to OSHA’s Web page (, it’s the most frequently cited standard for body repair shops. Between October 1997 and September 1998, the Hazcom Standard accounted for almost 20 percent of the total number of citations for shops with one through 99 employees.

And this standard can’t be “pencil whipped.”

Hazcom is referred to as a “performance” standard, meaning that a shiny, newly written formal program isn’t enough. Employees must be familiar with the OSHA standard, demonstrate knowledge of the chemicals they work with and know how to protect themselves. Compliance officers will actually interview employees and ask them questions, and if your employees can’t answer or don’t demonstrate the appropriate level of knowledge, you can be cited for “inadequate” or “insufficient” training. In addition to the citation, you also may be assessed a fine.

One more thing to think about: If you’re in an OSHA-approved State Plan state, you must comply with the state’s requirements, which may differ from the federal law. (Contact your state OSHA office for complete details on its requirements.)

Identifying Hazardous Chemicals
The first step toward compliance requires a comprehensive list of all hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

The word “chemical” refers to chemicals in all physical forms, including liquids (paint and thinner), gases (carbon monoxide, acetylene and nitrogen) and solids (welding rods).

As for hazardous, several characteristics of chemicals can make them hazardous if handled improperly. These characteristics include flammable, combustible, compressed gases, corrosive, unstable or reactive.

To get started, conduct a survey of all work areas to identify hazardous chemicals (don’t forget warehouses or storage areas). Review purchasing records and talk with employees in the paint and body shops. Take a good look around the facility and don’t forget chemicals generated by work activities, including welding fumes, dust from grinding and paint mist.

Obtaining Material Safety Data Sheets
The next step is to obtain a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each chemical on your list. It’s likely that you already have most of them, but now is the time to be sure. As you may already know, these sheets provide information on workplace chemicals, including physical and health hazards, possible routes of entry into the body shop, control measures, first aid procedures, physical/chemical characteristics and published exposure limits (generally expressed as PELs (permissible exposure levels) or TLVs (threshold limit values).

It’s the manufacturer’s responsibility to develop and provide an MSDS for its products, and you can generally obtain an MSDS from suppliers. At this point, you can crosscheck your newly developed chemical inventory with the MSDSs to see if there are any products that aren’t on your list. If you find an MSDS with no matching chemical on the list, investigate to find out why. This is important because the chemical list and MSDSs will become the foundation of your company’s written Hazcom Program.

Once you’ve obtained the MSDSs, all employees must be educated on where to find them and how to read and understand them. Depending on the size of your facility, a single notebook situated in a central location provides immediate access for employees (a three-ring binder is easy to maintain and keep updated). The chemical inventory list makes a good “table of contents” and can be used to organize the MSDSs. Computerized MSDSs are also acceptable, and some vendors now offer toll-free phone-in and fax-on-demand services.

And don’t forget new chemicals. According to the law, new chemicals can’t come into your facility or be used by employees without an MSDS. Chemical suppliers are supposed to send an MSDS with the first shipment of new chemicals and when any changes are made to the MSDS. New chemicals in the workplace also should automatically trigger updated training for affected employees.

Formulating a Hazard Communication Program
Don’t panic at this step; it’s not as difficult as it may seem. The written program doesn’t have to be a 200-page manuscript — but it does have to be a blueprint for how the program is implemented at your facility. To do this, it must meet all aspects of the federal standard as identified in paragraph (e) of 1910.1200 (note requirements for non-routine tasks and for outside contractors).

Your written program also has to accurately reflect activities and operations in your facility. A generic plan or one with “Sample” written across the front won’t suffice; it has to be specific to your company’s operations. Trade associations, insurance carriers and government agencies can provide sample programs and general guidance, but it’s up to you to create a program tailored to your business.

For instance, the person assigned responsibility for the program must be identified, where the MSDSs are kept must be indicated and, as noted previously, the chemical list and MSDSs must also become part of the program. (It’s important to remember that if an OSHA compliance officer visits your shop, the chemical list and MSDSs may be the first items he asks to see.)

Using Labels and Other Forms of Warnings
Manufacturers and distributors of chemicals are required to mark containers, such as 55-gallon drums of paint thinner, for example, with appropriate hazard warnings. The biggest problem at most facilities is that once the chemical arrives, it’s transferred to smaller containers and dispersed throughout the building into many employee work areas. And these smaller containers are the primary target of this part of the standard. All in-house containers must be labeled, tagged or marked with the identity of the contents and with the same hazard warnings provided by the manufacturers.

Consistency is important; labeling should look the same and provide the same information on each container. And labels must be printed in English and other languages when necessary for non-English-speaking employees.

Providing Employee Information and Training
Employee training is the most critical component of the Hazcom Program and must be addressed in word and deed (the written program and classroom training). Training is required prior to the employee’s initial work assignment and again whenever the hazard (or chemical) changes.

Remember, when the compliance officer asks questions, your employees need to be able to answer.

Employees must know what chemicals they’re working with, the hazards associated with them, where they can find additional information, and how to use the product safely and protect themselves from over-exposure. They must also be familiar with the requirements of the Hazcom Standard.

The training program can be designed to address each chemical individually or by categories of hazards (flammables, compressed gases, etc.). If a lot of chemicals are used in the workplace or they change frequently, training employees by general category is the easiest method. Also, the elements and format of the training program must be consistent with those found in paragraph (h) of the standard and be included in the written program.

The standard doesn’t mandate any format or tell you how the training must be accomplished. Like any good training program, however, employees should learn, understand and retain the information presented. The best results can be obtained through interactive programs, which include audiovisual aids and a post-session test. A test is also valuable for documentation purposes. Although the standard doesn’t require an employer to maintain employee-training records, it’s highly recommended that you do.

Don’t Live Hazardously
The Hazard Communication Standard was designed to inform and protect employees about chemicals in the workplace — something you, too, are probably concerned about.

Make no mistake. Even if you aren’t concerned, OSHA is — and its very serious about making sure employers comply with all aspects of the standard. The choice is yours. OSHA can force you to comply, or you can take what you know now and start teaching your employees what they need to know.

Writer Daryl Allegree, CSP, ARM, is the senior loss-prevention specialist with Universal Underwriters Group.

This article is for informational purposes only and isn’t intended to be a comprehensive review of the Hazard Communication Standard. Please refer to 29CFR1910.1200 Hazard Communication for complete details and information on the standard, and consult with qualified legal counsel to address your particular circumstances and needs. Universal Underwriters Group isn’t providing legal advice and assumes no liability concerning the information provided in this article.

Need Help?

For more information on the Hazard Communication Standard, consider the following:

• Training Requirements in OSHA Standards and Training Guidelines (OSHA 2254; ask for Stock No. 029-016-00196-4). Call the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office in Pittsburgh at (202) 512-1800 for a copy of this document.
• Hazard Communication Guidelines for Compliance (OSHA 3111; ask for Stock No. 029-016-00195-6). Call the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration at (202) 512-1800.

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