South Africa is in the early stages of rolling out the UN Globally Harmonised System (GHS) for the classification and labelling of chemicals and chemical mixtures as part of their National Regulations and Standards. The GHS classification builds on the well established UN Model Transport Regulations, which classify purely on physical safety risks, by also taking into consideration health and environmental hazards, and applies not just to chemicals in transit but also to chemicals in the workplace and at home. The system, which has already been implemented New Zealand and Japan, is currently being rolled out in a number of countries across the globe including the EU Countries and Uruguay. It allows industries to classify chemicals according to a unified set of building blocks to determine the health hazards and environmental hazard levels of the chemicals and mixtures of chemicals in addition to the transport safety standards that should be applied when transporting, or working with them. Prior to the development of the GHS chemical classification regulation for health and environmental hazards existed only in the EU (since 1967). In other countries and regions classification was based on the nine physical safety risk classes specified in the UN Transport Regulations which require chemicals to be packaged and labelled for transport in line with their hazardous nature, i.e. explosive, flammable, corrosive, toxic etc. These were taken up into global air (IATA) and sea (IMDG) regulations, and adopted by many countries in their National road regulations.

“This is still a relatively new system which is evolving through discussions in the UN Committee of Experts and there is a great deal that South Africa still needs to learn about it in terms of application and implementation,” says Liz Anderson, President of the Responsible Packaging Management Association of South Africa (RPMASA). “We have identified a pressing need to educate members of both the public and private sectors on the GHS and as such, through our participation in the UN Committee of Experts for Transport of dangerous goods and the GHS we have been able to arrange for Orange House Partnership (OHP), supported by UNITAR (UN Institute for Training and Research), to come to South Africa to assist with raising awareness of the implementation of the GHS as an essential risk management tool through a series of practical training workshops,” Anderson explained. OHP is a non-profit partnership association of international senior experts in risk assessment and risk management with governmental, academic and private sector backgrounds who volunteer their time to provide scientific expertise, assistance, advice, training and interim management to governmental authorities and the public and private sector, in particular in developing countries and emerging economies.

OHP ran two GHS Training workshops, one in Durban from 10 to 11 March and one in Midrand, Johannesburg from 14 to 15 March where around 140 delegates from both the public and private sectors were given the opportunity to learn about the GHS and to practice classification using the system in practical group sessions. The workshops were provided free of charge to the public sector whilst members of the private sector were charged a marginal fee to offset costs of venue, refreshments, training materials etc.

Included in the panel of trainers was Dr. Herman Koëter, founder and Managing Director of the Brussels based Orange House Partnership. “The aim of the training,” Koëter explains, “is to raise awareness and build capacity in South Africa whilst providing for a common understanding by the public and private sectors of the principles and practical issues for GHS implementation in terms of new legislation that is being phased in.” Dr Steve Vaughan, one of the OHP experts who was also actively involved in drafting policy, regulations and implementation in New Zealand shared that a key factor of their success was through forming a single high level body to co-ordinate and lead the process.

The phasing in of the GHS will affect, amongst others, technical experts responsible for chemical classification, labelling, compiling safety data sheets and registration of certain hazardous and toxic products as well as occupational health officers and officials responsible for risk assessment and communication. It is included in various Departments’ regulations including Transport & Packaging, Labour (the OHS Act), Agriculture, Health, and more recently the DEA for waste classification, although using the system for waste classification remains a controversial subject as according to the International experts it is not possible to accurately determine the constituents of mixed waste, such as found on landfill sites, which could make compliance with these standards near impossible for waste management organisations.

It is still early days for the GHS in South Africa where implementation is fragmented across numerous government departments requiring high level co-operation and coordination to develop and implement a national strategy and implementation plan. This is however only the start of an on-going journey to improve communication of hazards and risks to people in both consumer and industrial chemicals and products. It is hoped that training courses such as these delivered by OHP will open the door to a positive and productive way forward for safer chemical management in our country.

For more information visit the RPMASA website at www.rpmasa.org.za or contact Liz Anderson on 032 815 1018.