How To Read HMIS Labels

Some industries and organizations include processes that require personnel to handle and use hazardous materials in the workplace, and as such safety requirements are highly essential at all times. Of these, the Hazardous Materials Identification System (HMIS), originally developed for the paint industry by the National Paint and Coatings Association (NPCA) (now known as the American Coatings Association (ACA)) as a proprietary safety standard for OSHA compliance, is now used at the workplace for workers dealing with hazardous materials to clearly determine the potential health danger of the material, special precautions and handling requirements that must be followed.

Although they may be similar in concept, HMIS is a proprietary standard that should not be confused with the NFPA safety labeling standard, which uses colored diamonds. Furthermore, the NPCA/ACA and the NFPA strictly warns employees and employers not to mix both safety standards as a hybrid, and that HMIS is not to be used for emergency situations.

Because of the potential confusion the differing labeling systems provide, the following guide will show you how HMIS labels are read.

  • The Label. Unlike the NFPA labeling system, which is in a diamond-shaped format, HMIS uses four colored horizontal stripes for each of the following sections: Health, Flammability, Physical Hazard (now replaces Reactivity) and Personal Protection.

    Each section is assigned a number to rate the hazard potential of the material, from 0 to 4, but this rating system is very different from what is used on the NFPA labels. For further details on ratings, refer to a knowledgeable site that provides in-depth information on HMIS ratings.

  • Health Section. This bar is used to convey to the worker the potential health hazard of the material when being handled or used, is colored blue, and it has two blank white squares, one for an asterisk to denote a special warning that the material is a potentially chronic health hazard if mishandled; the second square is for the numerical rating, which as follows: 4 (Deadly), 3 (Extreme Danger), 2 (Dangerous), 1 (Slight Hazard), 0 (No Hazard).
  • Flammability. This bar is colored red, and is used to indicate the potential flammability of the material. There is a single blank square to rate the material in terms of flammability: 4 (Flash Point is below 73ºF/Boiling Point is below 100ºF), 3 (FP below 100ºF), 2 (FP below 200ºF), 1 (FP above 200ºF), 0 (Nonflammable).
  • Physical Hazard. This bar is colored orange, and is used to show the potential physical hazard the material could cause if mishandled, especially if exposed to heat, water, gases, electricity or others that may cause the substance to react violently. A single blank square is used to indicate the following ratings: 4 (May Detonate), 3 (Explosive), 2 (Unstable), 1 (Normally stable), 0 (Stable).
  • Personal Protection. This bar does not provide any rating but uses a proprietary letter code to indicate which combinations of personal protection required when handling the material, as letters A to K are standardized protection combinations. For example, A means eye protection is only needed; B requires a combination of eye protection and gloves; C calls for eye protection, gloves and an apron, and so on.

As this bar also allows for codes from L to Z for customized combinations of personal protection, it is important that your safety specialist has advice on such codes.

By understanding how HMIS labels are being used, whenever you are about to handle potentially hazardous materials, you can check the labels first to know how to deal with them on a daily basis at the workplace.


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