Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) Are You Reading Them Correctly?

If your employees work around harmful chemicals, it’s imperative they know how to read Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).

With information that helps workers identify the proper methods of handling chemicals, Material Safety Data Sheets, or more currently known as Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), are not only legally required, but also play a critical role in operations safety. Not knowing how to properly read them can be catastrophic for both you and your employees.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires certain information to appear on an SDS, each organization or company may carry its own set of requirements. This means details contained in these data sheets may vary slightly.

According to California’s Hazard Communication Regulation guide, there are several areas of information that are required on safety data sheets that employers should be aware of. This is so employers can then use the information contained in the SDS to educate employees on any hazards that may be associated with a particular chemical found in the workplace.

Below we’ll explore what some of these areas are so that you can ensure all safety data sheets are filled out properly, and you and your employees are reading them correctly.


Overall Purpose


Material Safety Data SheetThe chemicals featured on safety data sheets usually have different characteristics that must be understood. These include both the physical and chemical properties of the substances in question.

Manufacturers or importers who prepare data sheets must develop one for each hazardous substance or mixture that is produced or imported, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations.

In general, an SDS contains information on potential hazards, such as environmental, health, fire or reactivity. Each sheet also contains information for workers on how to safely handle and work with the chemical product.

An SDS is essentially a starting point for developing a safety program for that particular chemical. But, it also contains much more information than a label might - providing valuable content that allows employees to prevent hazardous situations from occurring, and what to do if they do happen.

It’s important to note, especially for employers, that information contained in SDSs can change. That means employers and supervisors should continuously review any SDSs and provide employees with the most current version.


The Meat Of An MSDS/SDS


In California, safety data sheets (SDSs) have largely replaced MSDSs. Essentially, they serve the same purpose, but are now more uniform and in line with OSHA’s Hazard Communication Safety Data Sheets.

Suppliers must prepare these safety data sheets for their products, and do so following a 16-section format. Each section provides a different piece of information about a hazardous chemical’s health effects and characteristics.

The sections are:

  1. Identification of the substance or mixture, as well as identification of the manufacturer or supplier
  2. Hazards information, which includes any hazards regarding the chemical and required label elements
  3. Composition of ingredients, which includes any trade secret claims
  4. First aid measures, including any symptoms/effects either acute or delayed, and any required treatment
  5. Firefighting measures, such as suitable extinguishing techniques and equipment, and any chemical hazards should a fire occur
  6. Accidental release measures, which includes emergency procedures, protective equipment, and proper methods of containment and cleanup
  7. Handling and storage, which lists precautions for safe handling and storage, including incompatibilities with other chemicals
  8. Exposure controls/personal protection, which lists OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs); ACGIH Threshold Limit Values (TLVs); and any other exposure limit used or recommended by the chemical manufacturer, importer or employer preparing the SDS; as well as any personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements or recommendations
  9. Physical and chemical properties, which lists any of the chemical’s characteristics, such as boiling points, appearances and odors
  10. Stability and reactivity, which lists the chemical’s stability and the possibility of any hazardous reactions
  11. Toxicological information, which includes routes of exposure; related symptoms, acute and chronic effects; and numerical measures of toxicity
  12. Ecological information, such as how the chemical might affect the environment
  13. Disposal considerations, which describe how the waste and contaminated packaging should be disposed of
  14. Transport information, which includes how the material should be packed, marked and labeled for hazardous chemical shipments
  15. Regulator information, which indicates any regulations that apply to the chemical
  16. Other information, including the date of preparation or the last revision

Understanding the purpose of each of the 16 sections above will help you locate important information in a timely manner, as well as properly train employees on the differences among the chemicals that are being handled at your facility.


Other Important Tips


Warehouse worker and manager looking at laptop in a large warehouseIn addition to the information outlined above, here are a few more tips to keep in mind when reviewing SDSs.

  • If you are an employee, and you notice data sheets are not accurate, talk to your employer right away to sort out any irregularities.
  • Manufacturers also are responsible for ensuring that the data sheets are correct. Contact them when anything is out of place or you simply need general information on how to read and translate it.
  • The OSHA located in California, or the state where you operate, also can assist you when you have questions about an SDS. In the event any irregularities are noticed, OSHA has the mandate of telling the manufacturer to amend all relevant areas.


Final Note


Every day, companies use chemicals in their manufacturing process that are considered “trade secrets.” These substances can be withheld from data sheets IF they are legal and not harmful in any way.

If you are unsure whether the chemical you are working with is considered hazardous, and is not included on the SDS, contact a licensed hazardous waste disposal company. An experienced company can help you determine how the chemical should be disposed of safely and legally.

A local licensed hazardous waste disposal company can also assist you with ensuring you are in full compliance with all state and federal regulations concerning your safety data sheets. This is important because OSHA usually inspects companies on a regular basis, and companies that are non-compliant usually face hefty fines and even risk closure.

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