What Is an MSDS?

An MSDS, or Material Safety Data Sheet, is a formal document that provides important health and safety information about any potentially hazardous product, typically a chemical compound used in a workplace. Recently renamed the Safety Data Sheet, or SDS, it's provided to end users by the product’s manufacturer or distributor.

Workers learn about the products they work with from Safety Data Sheets.
Workers learn about the products they work with from Safety Data Sheets. (Image: endopack/iStock/Getty Images)

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History

Similar to a user’s manual for chemicals and other such substances, SDSs have been made by manufacturers for millennia, according to a researcher who found instructions for using some chemicals in an Egyptian pyramid’s hieroglyphics. More recently, specific and generic chemical safety sheets were provided by many chemical manufacturers and their manufacturers’ associations.

Government Regulations

The first government regulations requiring MSDSs were effected in the maritime industry in the late 1960s. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration enacted a regulation in 1983 that required manufacturers to maintain MSDSs for the potentially hazardous substances used in their facilities. The regulation was expanded in 1987 to include all employers.

Current Developments

Since the implementation of the first MSDS requirement in 1983, OSHA and related agencies in the U.S., and their counterparts in other countries, have worked to develop uniform standards for the entire area of hazard communication. This has resulted in a new Hazard Communication Standard, which was introduced in 2013 and became effective on June 1, 2015. Under the new standard, the MSDS was renamed the Safety Data Sheet, or SDS.

Application

In practice, every potentially hazardous product delivered to a workplace must be accompanied by an SDS that conforms to the new standard, which itself is aligned with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, or GHS. The manufacturer is responsible for preparing the SDS in the language of the country where the customer is located

Exemptions

An exemption exists for nonhazardous chemicals and consumer products like correction fluid and window cleaner that are used in the workplace the same way and with the same frequency they’d be used by the average consumer. If used the same way but with greater duration or exposure, though, an SDS must be provided. In addition, office workplaces where workers rarely, if ever, encounter hazardous substances are also exempt from the SDS requirement.

Format and Accessibility

SDSs today must be presented in a uniform format consisting of 16 separate sections, which include identification of the product, its uses, and its manufacturer; identification of known or suspected hazards posed by the product; information on ingredients; and toxicological information. Other sections deal with handling and storage, first aid procedures and firefighting measures.

It’s the employer’s responsibility to see that relevant SDSs are available to all workers in their workplace. A worker should be able to access the relevant SDS immediately if necessary, whether it’s stored on a computer in the immediate work area or in a binder.

Warning

  • While it’s acceptable to store SDSs on a computer if it’s immediately accessible to the workers in the area, OSHA advises employers to maintain a hard-copy backup in the same area in case of power or computer failure.

User-Friendly

The new standard requires that every product, when it enters a workplace, be covered by an up-to-date SDS that’s user friendly and available to everyone in the facility. This means it must be written in plain, easily understood language; that generally means English, but it must be translated for non-English-speaking workers who don’t understand the English SDS. If there’s no SDS for a product, or if the existing SDS is more than three years old, the employer should request a new one from the manufacturer.

References

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