Right-to-know laws are a group of rules and regulations at the state and national levels that mandate that employers share scientific information with workers and local communities about the toxicity and other characteristics of chemicals and materials used in business processes. This information encompasses all substances to which workers might be exposed in the workplace, including materials and chemicals utilized in producing goods or providing services, chemical releases into the environment, waste management, and long-term exposure to substances. Right to know laws place special emphasis on maintaining and disseminating information on the potential long-term health effects (cancer, infertility, etc.) sometimes associated with longtime work exposure to high concentrations of industrial materials.
Experts in the fields of risk management and hazardous materials management generally separate employer obligations under "right-to-know" (RTK) into four broad categories: obligation to compile and retain relevant records; obligation to disclose any available information to workers, community members, or organizations on any potentially hazardous materials and processes used; obligation to provide adequate training to employees working with potentially dangerous materials; and obligation to disclose information on sudden health risks. This information, which must be presented even if it is not formally requested, should cover the potential risks of sudden and accidental chemical releases, explain the scope of the company's technological and human resources to effectively address such events; and identify other options that could also be considered.
The first U.S. efforts to inform workers and communities about hazardous substances used in the workplace were voluntary industry labeling practices. These labeling practices—now incorporated into the Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act—provided workers with basic information on hazardous materials, including descriptions of the nature of the hazard and instructions for safe handling (and medical treatment in case of exposure to the chemical in question). But as recognition increased of the potential long-term health effects of prolonged exposure to certain chemicals and materials, employee groups, companies, and government agencies all recognized that these safety measures needed to be bolstered.
In 1970 the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was formed to help assure that American workers enjoyed safe and healthy working environments. In subsequent years, the agency established a body of regulations designed to ensure that workers were adequately informed about workplace risks (both short- and long-term) through training programs, labeling, and material safety data sheets (MSDS), in which original manufacturers provide complete information on all hazardous substances shipped to customers (downstream users are also required to supply end-users with MSDSs. Contents of material safety data sheets must include the following for each chemical: identity, physical and chemical characteristics; primary routes of entry; health hazards; permissible exposure limits and control measures for reducing exposure; instructions for safe use, handling, and storage; emergency and first aid steps; name and address of manufacturer; date of production; and date at which the information contained in the MSDS was last changed. This bounty of centralized information makes the MSDS a cornerstone of all right-to-know programs. Moreover, during the 1990s some states initiated efforts to make these information-crammed forms more concise and understandable to lay readers, making them even more valuable.
OSHA's mandate remains in place today. It requires employers to maintain safe workplaces and jobs for their workers and maintains exposure standards for a wide variety of substances that are used in all industry sectors. In addition, many states have also developed their own right-to-know programs. These programs, if certified by the OSHA, allow individual states to assume responsibility for administration and enforcement. Observers agree that such programs are often difficult to implement, given the wide disparity of viewpoints typically exhibited by interested parties. "Conflicts arise from the relative significance of 'subjective' versus 'objective' information and from the nature and degree of uncertainty, error, and/or risk that is tolerable," explained Nicholas Ashford in UNESCO Courier. "Community residents, workers, and agency professionals may disagree about priorities: residents and workers worry about experts' ability to assess and control risk, while 'experts' fret about citizens' and workers' 'unreasonable demands' for certainty. All the members of a group will not necessarily share the same views on these matters. Conflicts occur between those trained and socialized in a technical field and those who identify more closely with humanistic traditions." But despite the challenges of accommodating these disparate concerns while simultaneously meeting the fundamental goal of ensuring workplace safety, many states that have established RTK programs have expressed satisfaction with the results.
Many employers erroneously believe that the nature of their business operation renders them immune to right-to-know regulations. Typical misconceptions include the belief that the workplace does not have any hazardous chemicals or that the quantities used in the workplace are so small that RTK rules do not apply. In reality, however, these regulations do not distinguish by quantity or size, and nearly every place of employment in the United States contains some substance that meets the definition of a hazardous chemical. For example, many paints, cleaning solutions, solvents, corrosives, compressed gases, glues, and other common substances fall under RTK regulations.
Business owners, though, can take a number of steps to ensure that they are in compliance with right-to-know rules and are promoting safety and healthy working conditions for all of their employees. Many of these steps can be undertaken quickly, and none require the knowledge or skills of a chemist or materials expert.
INVENTORY. Employers are encouraged to complete a comprehensive written inventory of all materials in the workplace that may be hazardous, irrespective of the quantity or size of the materials on hand. The written inventory should include chemicals used and/or stored in work areas outside the building proper. This inventory should also include by-products and intermediate products resulting from workplace processes. These materials inventories should include name of the product, contact information for the manufacturer and distributor, and general work area in which the material is used and/or stored (chemicals used throughout the facility can be so designated).
MATERIAL SAFETY DATA SHEETS Each substance noted as a result of the materials inventory should have a corresponding material safety data sheet, for manufacturers must provide MSDSs to each purchaser of a hazardous chemical when making the initial shipment (recipients of these information sheets, whether distributors or purchasers, must provide updated information with the first shipment after each update). If you do not have an MSDS for a chemical, immediately request a replacement data sheet from the manufacturer or distributor. Some businesses even stipulate delivery of an MSDS as a condition of purchase when ordering hazardous chemicals.
CHEMICAL INFORMATION LIST Once all material safety data sheets have been gathered, they should be reviewed to identify the substance and understand specific hazards associated with the material. The MSDS can also be used to prepare a chemical information list for the workplace. This list, required by law, must be 1) arranged in alphabetical order according to common name; 2) contain the chemical name; and 3) identify the area of the workplace in which it can be found. According to right-to-know regulations, employers must provide access to and copies of the chemical information list to employees and their representatives, OSHA inspectors, and other employers sharing the same workplace.
Not all chemicals used in the workplace are required on these information lists. For example, a chemical list in not required in situations where employees handle chemicals only in sealed, unopened containers under normal working conditions, such as in warehousing or retail sales.
CLEAR LABELING Businesses should make certain that all containers used to hold hazardous materials, whether on the factory floor or in the office, are labeled, tagged, or otherwise identified. This includes temporary portable containers if the container is going to be used by more than one person, utilized for an extended period of time (for example, more than one shift), or left unattended for any period of time. All hazardous substance container labels should clearly identify the material and detail potential hazards. Employers who receive unlabeled containers should either obtain an accurate label from the manufacturer or gather pertinent information from the manufacturer so that they can ready their own label.
Some businesses utilize commercially available labeling systems that use non-text methods to convey hazard warnings. These alternative systems may use icons, color coded numbers, or pictographs to describe levels of hazard and required personal protection equipment.
INSTITUTE UPDATING SYSTEM Employers should develop a system that allows them to efficiently update their chemical information list and MSDS holdings as each new substance arrives in their workplace. Updates should take place within 30 days of receiving the materials in question, as state and federal right-to-know programs require chemical lists to be updated regularly.
HAZARD ASSESSMENT Many employers use the hazard information contained in each MSDS to carefully review all processes in which the material is used. At this time, business owners can decide whether current workplace practices are adequate to ensure the safety and health of employees. Specific elements to review include level of engineering controls, adequacy of personal protective equipment, emergency procedures, and work practices.
HAZARD COMMUNICATION PROGRAM Employers should put together a written hazard communication program for their employees. This program should explain how the company is meeting state/federal right-to-know requirements. Effective hazard communication programs will also include detailed explanations of the company's system of identifying and labeling hazardous substances; information about the company's material safety data sheets and chemical information lists, including how they are maintained and how they can be accessed by workers; and detailed on policies and procedures that employees should follow when engaged in non-routine tasks that require usage of hazardous chemicals and other potentially dangerous materials.
TRAINING "If you approach the [hazard communication] training program as a means to enhance worker protection rather than as another burdensome requirement imposed by government, you may enjoy some positive results," noted the Maryland Department of the Environment, which enforces that state's right-to-know laws. "Less absenteeism, a reduction of lost time accidents, a reduction of work related illnesses, a possible reduction in workers' compensation costs, and potentially, saved lives."
Effective training programs should be implemented in conjunction with RTK laws. Right-to-know training programs should provide guidance and information in several key areas, including the purpose and content of the law; the nature of the hazardous substances in the workplace; protection from hazards; location and usage of information on these workplace materials, including material safety data sheets, labels, and chemical information lists; and overall employee rights. In essence, all right-to-know training programs should be based on the knowledge that information that is not understood by workers will be of little utility to them in preventing or limiting their exposure to hazardous chemicals in the workplace.
Business experts and state and federal administrators cite several keys to shaping and implementing an effective training program for your workforce:
Experts note that many facilities utilize literally thousands of chemicals in their operations. Training all employees about the characteristics of each one is an unrealistic burden for any employer. Over the years, OSHA policies have shown a general recognition of this reality. According to OSHA, "information and training may be designed to cover categories of hazards (e.g., flammability, carcinogenicity) or specific chemicals. Chemical-specific information must always be available through labels and material safety data sheets. …If there are only a few chemicals in the workplace, then you may want to discuss each one individually. Where there are large numbers of chemicals, or the chemicals change frequently, you will probably want to train generally based on the hazard categories (e.g., flammable liquids, corrosive materials, carcinogens)." In the late 1990s, however, employers increasingly charged that OSHA was inconsistent in defining the scope of this requirement and explaining its standards for chemical-specific training.
Ashford, Nicholas A. "The Right to Know." UNESCO Courier. May 1998.
Harris, Christopher. Hazardous Chemicals and the Right to Know. McGraw-Hill, 1994.
Hileman, Bette. "Balancing the Right to Know with Security Issues." Chemical and Engineering News. March 16, 1998.
Lowry, George G, and Robert C. Lowry. Lowry's Handbook of Right-to-Know and Emergency Planning: Handbook of Compliance for Worker and Community, OSHA, EPA, and the States. Lewis, 1988.
Sapper, Arthur G. "Chemical-Specific or Hazard-Category Training?" Occupational Hazards. August 2000.
Stenzel, Paulette L. "Right to Act: Advancing the Common Interests of Labor and Environmentalists." Albany Law Review. Vol. 57, no. 1, 1993.