OSHA Labeling
It’s What’s Inside that Counts — OSHA Labeling of Shipped Containers

Sometimes, regulations don’t give us all the answers we need. For example, many people are confused about the labelling requirements found in the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) of Part 1910.1200 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). This section tells us that we must label all “shipped containers” that contain hazardous substances destined for workplace use. But what exactly is the “shipped container,” when you have inner containers inside an outer one?

The simplest form of “shipped container” is a single packaging. This is a packaging such as a drum or bag, with no inner containers. Such a packaging must be labeled according to the HCS, if the product is hazardous and is intended for a U.S. workplace. If the product is also regulated as a hazardous material for transport according to the Department of Transportation (DOT), then we must also display DOT labels and marks as required by 49 CFR.

However, it gets murkier when we look at combination packagings. These packagings consist of an outer packaging as well as one or more inner packagings. In a transportation sense, both the inner and outer packagings are “shipped.” But are they “shipped containers”?

The answer to this question isn’t found directly in the HCS. Instead, OSHA has issued interpretations that provide guidance here and here. (Note that one of these interpretations was issued long before the current rules, known as Hazcom 2012, that incorporate the Globally Harmonized System, but the general principles for shipped containers still apply.)

When asked, “Does OSHA require both the inside container and the outside box or overpack to be labeled when a chemical is classified as corrosive and/or flammable?” PHMSA answered:

Under the HCS, an employer is required to label a hazardous chemical’s immediate container, but the standards do not require labels on the outside shipping containers… Accordingly, OSHA does not require an outside box or an overpack to have an HCS label, because they are not immediate containers.

They do bring up a special circumstance where OSHA labelling of outer containers becomes mandatory:

If, however, an overpack is being used because a hazardous chemical’s immediate container has ruptured or is leaking, the overpack must be labeled in accordance with the HCS. Similarly, if a shipping container is also the immediate container holding the hazardous chemical, the shipping container must be labeled in accordance with the HCS.

example-osha-labeling-and-transportation-drum-labels-tolueneExample: A label with HCS and DOT information.

So, our answer (if we have no leak or spill to contend with) is that inner packagings must bear OSHA labels as per the HCS. Outer packagings, or overpacks over completed packages, do not need OSHA labels, because they do not qualify as “shipped containers”. Presumably this interpretation is based on the fact that the workers will see the label on the inner packagings as they handle the product. This makes a similar label on the outer packaging unnecessary.

If the product is also a hazardous material for transportation, DOT labels must be visible on the outside of the package as assembled for transport. Therefore, inner packagings that directly hold the product will require OSHA labels, but outer packagings around those containers would need the DOT label and marks. Overpacks on completed packages must be marked and labelled as per 49 CFR if the DOT marks and labels on the packages inside cannot be seen.

A quick summary of these rules is: If the container directly holds the product, it needs an OSHA label. If it is the surface that will be seen during transport, it will need DOT marks and labels. If it’s both (as for a single packaging), it will need labels for both regulations.


If you have questions about how to label packages for workplace use or for transportation, please contact our regulatory specials here at ICC The Compliance Center Inc. You can reach us at 1-888-977-4834 (Canada) or 1-888-442-9628 (USA).

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2 thoughts on “It’s What’s Inside that Counts — OSHA Labeling of Shipped Containers

  1. Does anyone have any interpretations for the new IATA Special Provision A-197 for UN3082/UN3077? In particular, if you are shipping multiple inner packages that are below the 5L/5KG limit for the provision, how many containers can you ship? Up to 5 total…up to the non-bulk limit?

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