Veterinary Compliance Assistance

HMIS and NFPA Labeling Systems


Two important chemical hazard labeling systems used in healthcare facilities are the Hazardous Materials Identification System (HMIS®) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) NFPA 704 system. At first glance, the HMIS® and NFPA labeling systems appear quite similar; both have four sections colored blue, red, yellow and white. Despite their similarities, the two systems are not identical and each system serves a specific purpose:

  • HMIS® is a complete system designed to aid employers and their employees in day-to-day compliance with OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard. It includes hazard evaluations; a rating system for acute and chronic health, flammability and physical hazards; labels providing at-a-glance information on the hazards and PPE; employee training; and a written compliance program. HMIS was developed by the National Paint and Coatings Association (NPCA).
  • NFPA is a fire protection hazard warning system designed to provide rapid, clear information to emergency responders on materials under conditions of fire, chemical spill, or other emergency situations. This labeling system was developed by National Fire Protection Association. Like HMIS, it includes labels and a numerical rating system, but the basic purpose of the label information is different.

It should be noted that OSHA safety regulations do not require use of either the HMIS® or NFPA 704 systems; OSHA permits one to use any labeling system as long as it satisfies their requirements for “labels and other forms of warning” (29 CFR 1910.1200(f)).

Hazardous Materials Identification System HMIS®

HMIS® was developed by the National Paint & Coatings Association (NPCA) to help employers comply with OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard (HCS), 29 CFR 1910.1200. The system utilizes colored bars, numbers and symbols to convey the hazards of chemicals used in the workplace. NPCA has recently launched its third version of the HMIS® program --- HMIS® III.

The HMIS® labeling system satisfies a portion of the HCS requirements by allowing workers to identify, at a glance, the type and degree of hazards associated with each product they use.OSHA stated in the preamble to the 1983 HCS, that "Labels prepared in accordance with the NPCA Hazardous Materials Identification System would generally be in compliance with this standard." In the preamble to the 1994 revised HCS, OSHA indicated that this type of system continues to be an acceptable means of complying with the standard.

HMIS® labels can appear in a variety of formats. Some will include additional spaces to list target organ effects (a labeling requirement under 29 CFR 1910.1200) and other information, but the four colored areas shown here will always be present.

For additional information on HMIS®, see More Resources below.

NFPA 704 hazard identification ratings system

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing codes and standards, research, training, and education. NFPA membership totals more than 79,000 individuals from around the world and more than 80 national trade and professional organizations.

The familiar NFPA "hazard diamond" indicates health, flammability, and instability. The diamond is broken into four sections. Numbers in the three colored sections range from 0 (least severe hazard) to 4 (most severe hazard). The fourth (white) section is left blank and is used only to denote special fire fighting measures/hazards.

For additional information on NFPA, see More Resources below.

HMIS® vs. NFPA -- determining which labels to use

HMIS® is intended to be used by employers and workers on a daily basis and provides information on acute and chronic health hazards, flammability, physical hazard, and personal protective equipment. The system helps employers comply with OSHA's Hazard communication standard. The emphasis of HMIS® on personal protective equipment and hazard communication make it the better choice for keeping employees informed about every day workplace hazards and how they can minimize exposure.

NFPA's label information is intended for use by emergency response personnel (fire fighters, hazardous materials workers, police, etc.) under emergency conditions. Labels contain information on acute health hazards, flammability, physical hazard and special characteristics that might require special fire fighting techniques, such as reactivity with water. Facilities that store or use materials that require special handling under emergency situations may find the NFPA's system most useful. The additional information on special characteristics is particularly useful during a spill or fire.

More Resources

HMIS® - Hazardous Materials Identification System. A discussion presented by the Safety Emporium, a supplier of laboratory and safety supplies.


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