Chemical manufacturers account for 12 percent of all U.S. exports, bringing in approximately $192 billion in 2013[i]. By 2018, this total will jump to over $279 billion annually, according to ICIS, a petrochemical market information provider. But companies that hope to take part in this growth will first have to live by the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of classification and labeling of chemicals. This is more than a domestic obligation, but a critical link to competing in the international chemical market.

December 1, 2013 marked the first deadline in a series of transitional phases required for the United States to become part of a global system that communicates hazardous chemicals using a universally shared set of criteria, pictograms, colors and warnings. Without properly understanding how the GHS framework has been implemented in other countries, companies shipping internationally can run into costly delays. One key issue is recognizing the different roles regulatory agencies play in the execution of GHS in particular countries. For example, domestically, guidelines for GHS are communicated through a variety of government agencies including the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency. However, the main requirements detailing classification of chemicals (substances and mixtures), labeling and safety data sheets (SDS) are housed in Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Hazard Communication Standard. The involvement of different agencies adds significant complexity, as does the fact that GHS guidelines are often augmented with pre-existing laws related to chemical products and hazardous substances.

Following is an overview of how some of the major countries importing chemicals from the U.S. have approached GHS. While some of these countries were early adopters of the system, many have distinctive transitional phases for implementation and in some cases, have already introduced legislative revisions to update the United Nations’ core GHS standards. For chemical manufacturers and distributors, having a roadmap of international resources, key deadlines and flexible tools to produce accurate labels and SDSs is critical to navigate the waters of international shipping.