A variety of labeling standards and classification systems are available for managing chemical safety. This array of standards and changing requirements has led to confusion about what a compliant chemical label really looks like. In the United States, the most common systems are based on the NFPA 704 standard or OSHA’s regulations.
To understand what’s needed, you need to know the differences between three common label types:
- NFPA Diamond (or Fire Diamond) labels, which follow NFPA 704
- Customized and expanded labels that are loosely based on the NFPA style
- Standardized HazCom 2012 shipping labels, which follow OSHA’s updated requirements
Standards and Regulations
NFPA 704 was created in 1960 by the National Fire Protection Association, with the goal of helping first responders in an emergency situation. Its sign format uses bright colors and a simple design, which make NFPA 704 signs both easy to spot and easy to read. However, it only provides very limited information. Because this standard is not a law on its own, it is only mandatory where some legal authority chooses to require it.
In the United States, OSHA regulates workplace safety. Over time, the agency recognized that many safety issues were arising because workers simply didn’t know about the chemical hazards they were exposed to. In 1994, OSHA created a set of rules for communicating about those hazards. These rules are often referred to as “Right-to-Know” or RTK, because they reflected the idea that each worker has a right to know about the hazards in their workplace.
In 2012, OSHA replaced those RTK rules with a new set of requirements, incorporating elements of an international standard called the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). These updated rules for hazard communication are often referred to as HazCom 2012. The updated requirements include a label format for shipped containers, and a slightly relaxed set of rules for in-facility usage.
So what do these different labels look like?
Fire Diamond Labels with NFPA 704
The NFPA 704 standard describes a sign format, often called the “fire diamond.” The sign has a diamond shape, and is divided equally into four smaller diamonds of different colors. Three of those smaller diamonds (colored red, blue, and yellow) will have a bold number, from 0 to 4, in black; the remaining diamond (white) may be left blank, or include a special symbol in black.
The three numbers provide a snapshot of three common hazard types, with higher numbers representing a more serious and immediate hazard:
- Flammability (the red diamond at the top of the shape)
- Hazards to Health (the blue diamond on the left side)
- Chemical Instability (the yellow diamond on the right)
Finally, there is a space for identifying specific unusual hazards:
- Special Notice (the white diamond at the bottom of the shape)
These signs give emergency information in a quick and simple way—but that’s all they do. This label format is not intended for day-to-day workplace safety or OSHA compliance.
Adding to the Diamond for Other Applications
That said, the fire diamond is widely used and widely recognized, and many organizations have adapted it to suit their own needs. For example, adding the fire diamond to a container label immediately tells a viewer that the container’s contents may be hazardous, and provides a quick and simple way to describe the kinds of hazards that may be involved. On these labels, additional information is used to meet the requirements of other rules or standards.
The DuraSuite label design software from Graphic Products includes a module for this style of label, to be printed on special NFPA label stock. In addition to the fire diamond, finished labels include a variety of important details, such as the chemical name, specific health hazards, and symbols for the protective gear needed to handle the material safely. In some circumstances, these expanded labels can even meet OSHA’s requirements for containers that are used only within a single facility.
OSHA’s HazCom 2012 Labels
OSHA’s Hazard Communication rules require a specific format for any containers that enter or leave a facility. These HazCom 2012 labels align with the international GHS format, though the two systems are not identical.
Each label includes six key elements:
- Product Identifier (clearly identifying the contents of the container)
- Signal Word (“Danger” for very hazardous materials, “Warning” for less serious hazards, and no signal word for minor hazards)
- Hazard Pictograms (visually identifying the types of hazards posed by the material)
- Hazard Statements (clearly stating the exact nature of those hazards)
- Precautionary Statements (informing workers of the steps they should follow to keep safe)
- Supplier Information (providing traceability and contact details for more information)
These labels are meant to provide all the information that a worker might need in order to stay safe. Their standardized format maximizes the chances that a given worker will understand the label. Additionally, all incoming containers of hazardous chemicals will already have a HazCom 2012 label in place, and employers are required to provide their workers with the training to recognize and understand those labels.
For all these reasons, HazCom 2012’s label format is highly recommended, even where other labels may satisfy the requirements.
Choosing the Right Label Format
Each label or sign format has its own purpose. To choose the right design, match the style to your need. If your goal is to ensure worker safety in normal, day-to-day operations within your facility, the NFPA 704 approach is not your best choice. Instead, consider an expanded NFPA label, or step up to the widely-standardized HazCom 2012 format. If you already have an effective protection system for your workers, but want to prepare against an emergency situation, then NFPA 704 may be the way to go. Some industries and locations may have additional requirements for these signs. For containers of hazardous materials that leave your facility, the fully-detailed HazCom 2012 format is required.
If you have questions about these labeling formats, request a free guide to the HazCom 2012 system or watch a recorded webinar on the topic to learn how OSHA’s chemical safety regulations affect your facility. When it’s time to print your labels and signs, consider the DuraLabel line of printers from Graphic Products.