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Right-to-Know Laws and Rights

The Right-to-Know refers to workers’ rights to information about chemicals in their workplaces. The federal law that provides these rights is the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200). Private-sector employers must provide chemical information to their workers under the OSHA standard.

Most states have their own Right-to-Know laws that cover public-sector workers. In some of these states, workers have stronger rights than under the federal Hazard Communication Standard.

 

Know your right-to-know rights!

Right-to-Know laws give workers the right to know about dangerous chemicals at work. You have rights to get information about chemicals in four main ways.

  1. Employers must maintain a list of all hazardous products known to be in the workplace. 

  2. Chemical containers must have labels. 


    • Containers must have a label that workers can read. 

    • The label must show what the product is and who makes it. 

    • The label must warn about the dangers of the chemical.

  3. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) that describe the dangers of a chemical and how to prevent exposure must be provided. 


    • Workers must have access to MSDSs for the chemicals they work with during their shift. 

    • MSDSs must not have blank spaces. 

    • The name of the product on the MSDS must match the name on the container’s label.

  4. Workers must be trained about chemical hazards. 

    • What are the health hazards of a chemical. 

    • How to handle and store chemicals. 

    • How to prevent exposure to chemicals. 

    • Employees’ rights and employers’ duties under the law.

 

Workers' rights to information under hazard communication

Under the Hazard Communication Standard, employers must provide their workers with information about chemicals by:

  • a written program to inform workers, including a list of hazardous chemicals; 

  • labels; 

  • Material Safety Data Sheets; and 

  • training.

Some AFSCME local unions have formed Hazardous Materials Review Committees. They look at the MSDS and other information on chemicals before the employer brings them into the workplace. The committee checks the products’ hazards and may try to find safer substitutes for dangerous chemicals. These review committees often work as joint labor/management efforts.

 

Hazardous chemicals list

Employers must keep an updated list of hazardous chemicals they use and store. A hazardous chemical is a product that can cause harm to employees.

 

Labels

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard requires that manufacturers must label all chemical containers. At a minimum, the OSHA standard requires that the label must contain at least three pieces of information:

  • All labels must identify the chemical product. Either the chemical name or the brand name of the product may be used. 

  • All labels must include the manufacturer’s name and address. 

  • All labels must carry a warning about the specific health and safety hazards of the product. For example, “Absorbed through Skin — Causes Kidney Damage” tells what part of the body may be harmed. This is better than a label that advises to “Avoid contact with skin.” OSHA requires that the label list the organs that are affected by the chemical(target organ).

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard also requires that:

  • Labels must be placed on smaller containers when workers transfer material from one container to another. For example, if a worker transfers one gallon from a 55-gallon drum into a smaller container, the smaller container must also have a label. EXCEPTION: The smaller container does not have to have a label if only that worker will use up all the material on his/her shift. AFSCME recommends that employers label ALL chemical containers. 

  • All labels must be written in English. Labels in other languages are acceptable as long as there is an English label as well. 

  • Labels can be read. Damaged labels must be replaced before the product may be used.

Chemicals do not always have to be labeled. For example, employers do not have to label pipes or piping systems. Employers must still inform employees about hazardous chemicals in pipes, such as gas or steam. This can be done by color-coding pipes, such as painting all gas pipes yellow.

 

How to get an msds if you are not covered by osha or a state right-to-know law:

Ask your employer. Employers get these MSDSs when they buy chemical products.

Ask your AFSCME staff representative. Your union representative can get MSDSs from the AFSCME Department of Research and Collective Bargaining Services.

Get MSDSs on the Internet. Here is a sampling of sites where you can get access to MSDSs and other Chemical Information:

New Jersey Right to Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheets 

Where to Find MSDSs on the Internet 

OSHA Technical Links: Hazardous and Toxic Substances 

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