Understanding the Globally Harmonized System (GHS): A Comprehensive Guide to Chemical Classification and Labeling Standards


Before GHS

Before the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling (GHS), each country—and jurisdiction in that country—would have their own legislation regarding chemicals management. This meant that trade across jurisdictions was confusing and costly, for hazardous chemical workers, and governments, respectively.

What is the GHS?

The GHS was created by the United Nations (UN) in 2002 as a way to standardise chemicals management across the world. The system aims to ensure internationally consistent labelling, communication, and classification conventions, making trade and movement of chemicals an easier task.   

They’re not law: the GHS are a set of recommendations that each country can tailor to their specifications. This approach is often called the GHS Building Block approach; jurisdictions can choose which parts of the GHS they wish to implement into their already-existing regulations. Each jurisdiction is responsible for the upkeep of their own GHS rules. 

The GHS is managed by the United Nations
The GHS is managed by the United Nations

Who uses the GHS?

GHS is used across the world in varying levels. It is currently implemented in about 65 countries, and many countries are looking to adopt the GHS system in the coming years. The ninth revised edition of the GHS (GHS Rev. 9), published in 2021, is the most recent published revision. The GHS is updated every two years, but it is up to each country to decide how often they update the GHS they have implemented. 

Essential GHS information

GHS was implemented using new terminology and visual aids, ensuring user-friendly documentation. The GHS introduced the use of signal words, including “danger” and “warning”, which describe the hazard level of the chemical. It also included hazard and precautionary statements, which describe the chemical’s main health effects, and measures to avoid these, respectively. 

The GHS also came with an overhaul to Safety Data Sheets (SDS)—specifically their format and content. Like other regulatory information, prior to the GHS being implemented, SDS formatting differed from place to place. The new SDS layout is a 16-section format, covering information such as first aid, firefighting controls, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), among others. 

A new set of pictograms were also introduced to the GHS; they are used to further classify any physical and environmental hazards. In reference to the below picture, from left to right, top to bottom, the pictograms are as follows: flammable; oxidising; acute toxicity; corrosive, eye damage; explosive; irritant, hazardous to ozone layer, acute toxicity; environmental toxicity; serious health hazard, e.g. carcinogen; and gas under pressure. 

GHS: Australia

Introduced in 2012, most Australian states have implemented GHS into their regulations. In Australia, the Work Health and Safety Act (WHS) is the implementer of GHS. 

Each state that follows it has their own way of incorporating it into their regulations—the only rule that follows them all is that they have a five-year transition period. Australia is currently transitioning to GHS Revision 7, and as at January 1 2021, were given a two year transitional period to move. The transition period will end on 30 December 2022. 

As of November 2022, all states except Victoria have included GHS in their regulations. However, Victoria recognises the GHS and GHS-compliant SDS in their states.           

GHS: Internationally 

Many countries across the world use GHS to varying degrees. Below is a table of a handful of countries, including the revision they are currently using and what revision they are planning to move to, or have already moved to. 

AustraliaGHS 3GHS 7
United StatesGHS 3GHS 7
New ZealandHSNOGHS 7
Canada GHS 5 GHS 7
India N/AGHS 8
RussiaGHS 4 GHS 7
BrazilGHS 4GHS 7
JapanGHS 4GHS 6
South AfricaGHS 1GHS 4
ColombiaN/AGHS 6
SingaporeGHS 2GHS 4
MexicoGHS 3 GHS 5 
IndonesiaGHS 2GHS 4
TaiwanGHS 2GHS 4

Chemwatch is here to help

Whether you’re confused about which Revision you should be moving to, or need some help understanding the GHS, we are here to help. With offices across the globe, we are your local experts in all things SDS, Risk Assessment, GHS and chemicals management. Contact us today at sa***@ch*******.net


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