Why HMIS and NFPA 704 labeling are better than GHS?

In Europe, the labels of chemical substances, including paints and paint raw materials, contain GHS (Global Harmonized System) markings. This system was developed by the United Nations and is used throughout the European Union.

In the SPEKTROCHEM paint laboratory located in Poland, however, we use slightly different systems for marking hazardous substances and associated hazards. We use NFPA 704 and HMIS systems on the packaging of reagents, raw materials and prepared samples. What are they and why do we use them properly?

To understand why HMIS and NFPA 704 are better than the common European GHS system, it is essential to understand the principles of these systems.

NFPA 704 is a system introduced by the National Fire Protection Association. The NFPA standard number 704 describes a way to quickly identify chemicals. The NFPA 704 designation consists of a “diamond” composed of four differently colored fields. The marking allows you to quickly identify the risk, extinguishing agents used to extinguish a fire, and other threats and opportunities during rescue operations.

Each of the squares inside the “diamond” identifies a specific type of hazard: red – fire hazard, blue – health hazard, yellow – instability hazard, and white – specific hazard type.

NFPA 704 guide

In the red, blue and yellow fields, numbers from 1 to 4 are used, respectively denoting the increasing risk. In the white field, special markings are entered, which may mean oxidant (OX, OXY), biological hazard (BIO) or poison (POI). When looking at such a diamond, you can immediately see whether it is a hazardous substance, and in special cases, its type.

Samples with NFPA 704 labeling in the Spektrochem paint laboratory

The photo above shows examples of samples from our laboratory with labels with the designation – health hazard: 1, flammability: 2, instability: 0, without any particular type of risk. So you can immediately see that we are dealing with a substance that can cause temporary damage to health, with a flash point from 38 °C to 93 °C, i.e. one that must be heated to create a fire hazard under normal use and stable in use. conditions of normal use.

Another system that we use extensively for sample marking is HMIS Hazardous Materials Identification System. It is a system created by the National Paint & Coatings Association (now ACA – American Coatings Association) in the United States that meets the recommendations of the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200).

The HMIS system differs in its designations from NFPA 704, it is even often used synergistically, as it mainly concerns the hazards for people working with chemicals. The rules for labeling substances are shown in the diagram below.

HMIS labeling with description of personal protection symbols

The HMIS label consists of four stripes: blue (health hazards), red (flammable), orange (physical hazards, reactivity) and white (personal protective equipment). The first three bars contain numerical markings determining the degree of risk, which are placed in white boxes (0 – no hazard; 4 – extreme hazard). The blue strip also includes asterisks in the white box if the substance is likely to cause chronic health hazards or slash if it does not. The white stripe identifies personal protective equipment when working with a given substance.

Below are examples of the labeling of paint samples prepared in our laboratory.

HMIS labels of paints prepared in the Spektrochem laboratory

In the blue bar, the marking “/” shows that the substance does not cause chronic damage to health, and the grade 1 indicates that the substance may cause irritation or slight reversible health effects. In addition, the sample does not present a flammability, nor does it pose a physical-reactive hazard. However, it is necessary to work with personal protection A – laboratory goggles.

So why are those systems that are so much more powerful than the GHS better?

Let’s discuss this with ethanol and GHS and NFPA 704 labels. Below are two ethanol labels, left GHS label, right NFPA 704 label. Looking at the GHS label, the substance is flammable. We do not immediately see how serious a fire hazard it poses. We do not have any additional information that is visible at first glance. Of course, we can read in the SDS, read the H-phrases, but in case of danger, there is no time for it.
If we look at the NFPA 704 label, we can see at once that the substance poses a significant fire hazard, because the symbol 3 out of 4 immediately indicates this and we immediately know that 3 means the flash point from 27 ° C to 38 ° C. In addition, we see a health risk at level 2, i.e. contact may cause temporary damage to health, with the risk of complications

It is enough to learn the rules of labeling, remember that the risk increases from 1 to 4 and at first glance we have the answer what dangerous substance we are dealing with.

Identifying a hazard at first glance at an HMIS label looks similar. You can see immediately how big a threat to health, how much flammable substance is in the laboratory. Of course, this does not exempt you from reading SDS cards, but it allows for quick identification of substances, such as the determination of the following NaOH solution (sodium hydroxide)

In the case of GHS labeling, for sodium hydroxide, we do not immediately know what type of personal protection we need. The NFPA 704 and HMIS systems allow for greater safety at work, especially since we do not have to check the SDS every time, for example, what type of personal protection is needed, because it is on the label.

Labels of samples in the Spektrochem laboratory

Of course, we use GHS labeling systems in parallel with NFPA 704 and HMIS, however, the latter two ensure that our personnel can safely work with all substances in our laboratory.



Published by Artur Palasz

Scientist, paint formulator and testing expert.

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