and emergency measures. Finally, in plants where workers were exposed to hazardous substances, employers were required to provide the data sheets and train employees in accessing chemical information, protecting themselves from risk, and responding to emergencies.
Many labor and consumer groups were unsatisfied with the disclosure system’s limited scope, however. Soon after its approval, United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO-CLC, and Public Citizen attacked the standard’s narrow scope and preemption of sometimes stronger state right-to-know laws. Rejecting the Reagan administration’s rationale for limiting disclosure to manufacturing firms, the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1985 directed the secretary of labor to extend disclosure to all sectors. In 1987, a new court ruling confirmed that all industries where employees were potentially exposed to hazardous chemicals had to comply with the disclosure requirements. By 2004, OSHA estimated that over 30 million American workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals in their workplaces and that the hazardous chemical reporting system affected around 3 million workplaces and 650,000 chemical substances.
Over time, chemical manufacturers improved their disclosure of chemical hazards. Manufacturers responded to employers’ requests for additional chemical information and sought to limit their potential liability for willfully hiding information on dangerous chemicals. A 1992 study by the GAO found that 56 percent of surveyed employers reported “great” or “very great” improvement in the availability of information, an d 30 percent said they substituted less-hazardous chemicals because of the information they received.
Material safety data sheets became a routine method of conveying product information about both hazardous and nonhazardous chemicals. Many firms now post on the Internet data sheets for all their products, and a number of Web sites offer searchable databases. Some manufacturers use disclosure as a competitive tool, offering their customers more information than OSHA requires, including guidance on how to comply with disclosure requirements, training materials, and experts to assist customers.
Manufacturers and employers also improved the quality of the reported information. Responding to criticism about the quality of material safety data sheets, the Chemical Manufacturers Association convened a committee to develop guidelines for the preparation of such sheets. Their effort contributed to the adoption of a voluntary industry standard for these sheets in 1993, which was subsequently endorsed by OSHA.
Despite progress of this kind and several OSHA guidelines aimed at improving disclosure, chemical hazard disclosure ranked second in the list of the ten most violated OSHA standards in 2005, accounting for over 8 percent of all violations.
The extent to which workers comprehend disclosed information about chemical hazards and take protective measures in response also remains unclear. Surveys have shown that employees are generally able to understand only around 60 percent of information in chemical data sheets, with more-educated workers doing significantly better than those who are less educated. Even in cases where workers understand safety information, surveys suggest that they often make only limited use of it. It is also interesting to note that all documented cases suggesting that training and information disclosure have a positive impact on workers’ behavior involve unionized firms where labor organizations may have played an intermediary training or information-disseminating role.
At the international level, OSHA played an important role in the development of an international format for chemical classification and labeling, leading to the United
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2004.
- Stillman and Wheeler, 1987.
- General Accounting Office, 1992a.
- Baram, 1996. According to the author, liability and market forces promote compliance with the hazard communication standard.
- Tom Anschutz, "When OSHA Comes Calling," Occupational Hazards, March 2006, pp. 50–51.
- See Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 1997.
- Kolp et al., 1993.
- Phillips et al., 1999.
- Fagotto and Fung, 2003; Weil, 2005.