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Right to Know Laws

For many AFSCME members, exposure to serious health hazards is all in a day's work. On-thejob exposure to chemicals, such as solvents, paints, disinfectants, fumes, dusts, sewer chemicals, cutting oils, pesticides, degreasers, and cleaning chemicals can make you sick and even kill you. Some chemicals may also pose safety hazards and have the potential to cause fires and explosions and other serious accidents.

Public employees in most states are covered by state Right-to-Know laws or the state's version of federal OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard. These laws give workers a legal right to get information and training on hazardous chemicals that they are exposed to on the job. This law can be used to identity health hazards on the job and then demand adequate protections so that workers do not have to choose between their health and their jobs.

Afthough many of these laws differ from state to state, almost all have the same basic requirements:

  1. Labels 
    Each container of hazardous chemicals must carry a label. Containers include bags, barrels, boxes, cans, cylinders, drums, tank trucks and other vessels. Chemical suppliers are responsible for labeling containers before they are shipped, and employers must make sure that all incoming containers are labeled. 
    Labels must contain: 
    The identity of the product. This may be a trade name, chemical name, brand name, code name or number. This identity must also appear on the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the product and the chemical list. 
    Appropriate hazard warnings. This includes information on the potential for fires and explosions, as well as how the product can affect your health. 
    The name and address of the supplier. (Not required if used in-house only and not for shipment.)
    Portable containers do not have to be labeled as long as the chemicals are taken from labeled containers and the portable container is only for the immediate use of the worker who makes the transfer. 
    Piping systems and stationary process containers (like reaction vessels) may use signs, placards, process sheets, operating instructions or other written materials instead of labels in most state laws. Some states require pipes to be labeled as well. Products labeled according to other federal laws, such as pesticides and consumer products, do not have to be labeled under this standard.
  2. Material Safety Data Sheets 
    Chemical manufacturers must prepare Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for all hazardous materials they produce or import, and send them along with each shipment. Your employer must keep an MSDS for each hazardous chemical used in the workplace. MSDSs must be readily accessible during each shift to employees when they are in their work area(s). 
    MSDSs must be readily accessible in the work area and situated in the work area so that they can be used in an emergency if needed as a reference. Some states allow more than one day for the employer to supply the MSDS. "Work area" is defined by federal OSHA as "a room or defined space in a workplace where hazardous chemicals are produced or used, and where employees are present." Union representatives also have access to MSDSs. 
    See the AFSCME Fact Sheet on How to Read an MSDS for more information.
  3. Employee Information and Training 
    The employer must provide workers with information and training on hazardous chemicals at the time of initial assignment and whenever a new hazard is introduced into the work area. Some states require training to be repeated on an annual basis. 
    Training requirements are flexible, but training must be done on work time and cover: 
    the requirements of the Hazard Communication Standard; 
    the methods and observations used to detect the presence of hazardous chemicals; 
    the physical and health hazards of chemicals used in the workplace, including signs and symptoms of overexposure; 
    storage and disposal of workplace chemicals; 
    how to find and use written information such as labels and MSDSs; and 
    the measures necessary to protect against harmful exposure, such as ventilation, work practices, emergency procedures and personal protective equipment.
    Giving a worker an MSDS to read does not meet the training requirements of the law.
  4. Written Hazard Communication Program 
    Most state laws require each employer to prepare a written plan which explains how that employer will meet the requirements of the law. The plan must describe the labeling systems used and procedures to update label information, explain how MSDSs will be maintained and made available to workers, designate persons responsible for training, and describe the type of training that will be provided. 
    The written plan must also include: 
    a list of all hazardous products known to be present in the workplace; 
    methods the employer will use to inform workers about the hazards of non-routine tasks; 
    methods the employer will use to inform the workers about the hazards in pipes and piping systems; 
    procedures for sharing hazard information with on-site contractors.
    The written plan must be made available upon request to workers and their representatives.

The trade secret loophole

The federal Hazard Communication Standard allows a chemical manufacturer to withhold the names of chemical ingredients from the MSDS if this information is a "trade secret." A trade secret is "proprietary" information that gives an employer a competitive advantage over rival companies that do not know about the trade secret. Even if the manufacturer determines that the chemical ingredients are a trade secret, the MSDS must still include all of the other information that is required by the law.

In addition, the law requires the manufacturer to release the trade secret information under certain conditions:

  • In a medical emergency, the manufacturer must immediately provide information on chemical ingredients to a treating doctor or nurse. The manufacturer may later ask the health professional to sign a written confidentiality agreement.
  • In non-emergency situations, health professionals, employees, and employee representatives can obtain chemical identity information from the manufacturer by demonstrating a "need to know." The request must be in writing and describe that the information is needed for one of the following purposes: assessing workplace hazards, conducting workplace exposure monitoring, providing medical treatment to exposed employees or selecting appropriate protective equipment and/or engineering controls. The person requesting the information must agree in writing not to use the information for any other purpose or release it under any circumstances, except to OSHA. If the manufacturer still refuses to disclose the information, the requestor should file a complaint with OSHA.

Identifying work-related illnesses

Chemical exposures may cause or aggravate many serious health problems, including heart disease, cancer, lung disease, kidney and liver damage, sterility, brain and nerve damage, burns, and rashes. Because some of these illnesses may take many years to develop, they are often not recognized as being work-related.

Also, most doctors are unfamiliar with work-related diseases. You can help your physician detect early signs of work-related illness by bringing the following information to your next appointment:

  • a list of the hazardous chemicals present in your work area;
  • MSDSs for all of your workplace exposures.

Remember, you can obtain both of these under the Hazard Communication Standard.


In each state with a Right-to-Know Law, a state agency is designated to enforce the law, generally the Department of Labor or Department of Health. If an employer is in violation of any part of the law, an inspection can be requested. Check with your AFSCME Representative to find out whether you are covered by a Right-to-Know law and which agency is responsible for enforcement. These agencies usually have written information about the law.

This material was produced under grant number 46COD528 from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor. It does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Labor, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

For more information about protecting workers from workplace hazards, contact the AFSCME Health and Safety Program at (202) 429-1215, or 1625 L Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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