International Impact

Will New Asbestos Warning Labels Save More Lives?

Written By:
Nov 18, 2013
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Written By: Tim Povtak,
November 18, 2013

Asbestos is a deadly, odorless substance with virtually invisible fibers, and almost every house constructed before the 1980s contains the toxic mineral in
its makeup.

Its hazardous nature makes it extremely important to warn workers when areas and supplies are contaminated by asbestos. Institutions around the world must often ask themselves: What image or wording will save the most

That’s why the new Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), containing both warning pictograms and text, is being
implemented internationally.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the U.S. federal agency responsible for the enforcement of health and safety in the workplace. The administration has specific requirements for labeling chemical hazards, and is the body that regulates asbestos reporting. In early 2012, OSHA decided to align all hazard communications, such as warning signs and labels, with the GHS standard.

The United Nations created the GHS to institute a global standard for hazard reporting. Before the GHS, different hazard label standards and government
regulations across the globe resulted in confusion and endangerment. An example is the devastating misunderstanding of the skull and crossbones symbol by
Iraqis in the Kirkuk province.

New descriptions and pictograms are required to help communicate hazards across cultural barriers. The change affects the reporting of hazardous materials,
including asbestos.

What are the changes?

Appropriate awareness is particularly important for asbestos hazards because exposure is not obvious, since the particles are tiny. Building and site
managers must label areas and supplies exposed to asbestos immediately and clearly. The new GHS model pictograms and text instructs viewers on how to
safely interact with asbestos.

When deciding what kind of signs or labels to use for identifying asbestos, the UN took this route:

substances flowchart

Asbestos is classified as a carcinogen because it is known to cause cancer, and finally subcategorized as a Category 1. It is also a skin irritant. Therefore, labels must include these pictograms:

skin irritant sign
exclamation point sign

The word “Danger” is used because of the severe consequences of exposure. Less severe hazards would use the word “Warning.”

Additionally, the GHS requires carcinogen labels to “state the route of exposure” that may cause cancer. Asbestos can cause cancer through inhalation; if touched, it can irritate the skin. Both must be represented on the label. Finally, after going through these classifying systems we get a sign that looks like this:

asbestos warning label

The creators of the GHS hope that the system will promote awareness, and prevent the severe consequences of asbestos exposure.

Alex Roitman is the Outreach Manager for routinely works with nonprofits and safety professionals to spread safe practices and accurate messaging. He hopes more effective hazard communication and signage can prevent serious injuries and save lives.

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