What is GHS? Learn about The Globally Harmonized System

What is GHS? Learn about The Globally Harmonized System

Published July 13, 2022

4 minute read

The Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals is a voluntary international system that was designed to help countries communicate hazards when using chemicals.

It's important for companies to understand exactly what it is, and to outline any critical steps involved to mitigate the risks associated with handling chemicals in the workplace. 

In this blog post we will provide you with a brief overview of what the GHS is, the benefits of this system, and why you should implement it in your business.

What is GHS?

The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, or simply the Global Harmonizing System (GHS), is the United Nation’s system of standardization and harmonization of chemical labelling and classification on a global level.

The three main components of GHS are:

  1. Hazard classification
  2. Chemical labelling
  3. The use of safety data sheets

                                                          More specifically, the main goals of GHS are:
  • Classification of chemical hazards according to GHS standards, including pure chemicals and chemical mixes.
  • Communication and labelling of hazards through universal warning pictograms, signal words and statements, and standardized Safety Data Sheets (SDS).

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All GHS standards are outlined in a main document called the GHS Purple Book. The GHS Purple Book is the main pillar of GHS, containing all the relevant information needed for successful implementation of GHS across the globe. The latest, 8th revision of the GHS Purple Book, released in 2019, is  available in print, and features updates in several areas. Some significant alterations in the 8th revision include:

  • New criteria for systematizing flammable gasses, which are now clearer and stricter regarding the pyrophoric gases and unstable gases

  • Minor changes to definitions of health hazard classes, including:
    • skin corrosion and irritation
    • eye irritation
    • dermal irritation
    • serious eye damage
    • carcinogenicity
  • Specific precautionary statements are rationalized in Annex 3.
    • Others have been expanded – the statement P503 (advice to refer to manufacturer or supplier for info on disposal, recovery, and recycling) has now been added for certain explosives.
  • The coverage of Section 14 (Transport Information) around safety data sheets has been extended to all bulk cargoes transported via the International Maritime Organization, encompassing all physical states of the cargo.

  • Labelling of small packaging with fold-out labels has been addressed and defined through an example in Annex 7 and the fold-out labels allow for more information to be featured in limited space.

You can also refer to the official list of GHS amendments made to version 7.

Benefits of GHS Adoption

GHS is a crown of international efforts to regulate the issue of chemical hazards. The harmonization and universality of labelling and classification that GHS offers are a long-called-for advancement in chemical safety on a global chemical market.

By providing clear warnings and instructions, GHS ensures better protection for the end users, as well as workers involved in the production and distributions of chemicals. GHS benefits the global chemical trade as well, since it facilitates trade by simplifying administrative and safety procedures related to the important and export of chemicals.

The main audience groups that GHS targets include industrial workers, safety workers, transport workers, emergency responders, and consumers. Essentially, all groups that come into regular contact with hazardous chemicals in any stage of product’s lifecycle. All these groups benefit greatly from clear and unified hazard communication, making their interaction with chemical products safer and easier. 

GHS adoption offers the following benefits to organizations:

Improve the Protection of Human Health

A key advantage of implementing GHS, which is an internationally recognized system, is that it allowed companies to improve the protection of human health and the environment by taking steps that have been carefully devised and vetted by multiple bodies. 

Reduced Costs and Improved Efficiency 

As general health standards improve and injuries decrease, overall costs also fall within the organization. This has a knock-on effect, and results in an uptick in efficiency due to improved productivity and less disruptions.

Greater Hazard Awareness 

Implementing GHS ensures greater hazard awareness, allowing employees to better understand different hazards and take safety precautions. This also benefits members of the public, as employees can use this knowledge in other facets of their life too.


GHS in Chemical Labelling

The Globally Harmonized System covers all hazardous chemicals, which are divided into three major groups:

  • Physical hazards
  • Health hazards
  • Environmental hazards.

The chemicals in these categories include those found in the workplace, in transport and consumer products, as well as pesticides and pharmaceuticals. GHS standardized elements which are featured on every hazard label generally include:

  • Hazard Pictogram(s) - Specific information about a hazard expressed through standardized visual symbols.
  • Product Identifier - Chemical identity of the name of the substance or a hazardous ingredient to help with identification.
  • Signal Word - There are only two standard signal words: Danger and Warning. These are mainly used to help convey the level of risk that certain chemicals carry.
  • Supplier Identification - Name, address, and telephone number of a chemical manufacturer or supplier.
  • Hazard Statement - Standardized phrase that describes the hazard in accordance with the GHS hazard classification.
  • Precautionary Statement - Standardized expression that recommends measures for preventing and/or minimizing adverse effects.

GHS in Safety Data Sheets

The Safety Data Sheet (SDS) notifies the users about the hazards of a substance in question, and informs about safety precaution measures. All substances or mixtures which fall into a certain hazard class, or contain a hazardous ingredient in higher concentrations then the prescribed limits should be equipped with a relevant SDS. 

When providing Safety Data Sheets for different countries or markets, it is essential to translate them to the official language of the end country and to check whether the countries in question have additional requirements for some segments of SDSs before they're sent.

This last step is important, especially for manufacturers that are shipping chemicals to different countries. It's important that the end-consumers are capable of understanding and interpreting the safety data sheets to understand the dangers and the risks associated with the chemicals.

sds sheet


GHS Implementation

GHS is implemented in different ways by different regions.  For example, Canada has implemented the GHS through their Workplace Hazardous Materials System (WHMIS), while the EU uses the CLP Regulation and the US has incorporated the requirements through HazCom. Each country that uses this sysem generally has its own internal body for implementing it.

You can explore the full list of countries which implement UN’s GHS here.

Note that different countries can be at different stages of GHS implementation. For example, one of the biggest traders on the global market – China – currently implements standards in compliance with the 4th revised edition of GHS, instead of the 8th.

Also, additional requirements and regulations can be added to UN’s basic GHS standard by individual governments. Enterprises and businesses should always check GHS specifics of an end country before they start implementing it. 

Hopefully this article will help give you an introduction to GHS and the best practices for implementing safe chemical processes in your workplace.


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