Safety Data Sheets (SDS) are an essential requirement to OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard. They are one of the most important documents a facility should have, as they address the properties of each chemical that workers use, transport, and handle onsite, including ones that are utilized only occasionally. SDSs have a standardized, 16-section format that relays crucial information about a chemical. You’ll quickly and easily be able to find hazard classification, actions to take during accidental spills or releases, personal protective measures, precautions for handling, transporting, and storing the product safely, and more.
SDSs are generated by the supplier (either the manufacturer, importer, or distributor) of a chemical. The format must adhere to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). Safety Data Sheets used to be known as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), until OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard formally aligned with GHS in 2012. As of June 1, 2015, all employers in the United States are required to have their labeling and communication programs updated to correspond with GHS standards. All MSDSs should have been replaced with the SDS uniform format.
It is important to comply with these regulations, as chemical safety in the workplace relies on communication and consistency. Chemicals have a wide range of toxicity; workers need to understand whether the products they’re handling may cause harm and what to do if an emergency occurs. The employer has a responsibility to train workers, keep SDSs in an accessible location, and implement a safety program that includes handling and storing toxic substances.
The Transition: MSDS to SDS
Although OSHA was established as an agency in 1970, the first requirement to provide chemical hazard information to employees wasn’t implemented until 1994. In the 1990s, the “Right to Know” concept became very important to the agency, as it had become clear that many workers were exposed to occupational risks that they had no knowledge of. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) became one of the original requirements under OSHA’s Right to Know rules. Starting in 1994 facilities had to have these sheets, which provided information about every chemical used during the facility’s operations.
While MSDSs were a big step forward for chemical safety, the guidelines for both the format and enforcement of this information were loosely defined. OSHA found that a chemical’s data sheet from two different facilities could look entirely different. There was often incomplete information, and what information there was wasn’t standardized; for example, one facility would require their workers to don specific PPE before handling a chemical, while another facility didn’t require PPE for the chemical at all. Many chemically-related injuries that occurred could have been prevented if the sheets contained consistent information.
As OSHA aligned with GHS in 2012, they updated their chemical safety and communications standards. MSDS became SDS, and these informational sheets became fully standardized on an international level. Although the MSDS format is now outdated, it did achieve the original goal of keeping workers more informed and provided a basis for the formation of Safety Data Sheets.
Who is Responsible for SDSs in the Workplace?
OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard establishes two requirements for the generation and maintenance of Safety Data Sheets:
- Manufacturers, importers, and distributors of chemicals must prepare the Safety Data Sheet that is sent to customers. Each kind of chemical gets its own specific SDS, with every section of information filled out to a minimum as detailed in 29 CFR 1910.1200, Appendix D. This ensures it is classified correctly, and that hazards are effectively communicated to the facility or employer who receives the chemical. Manufacturers, importers, and distributors are also responsible for updating SDSs anytime new developments or changes occur for the classification of a certain chemical.
- Employers must make the SDSs they receive easily accessible for workers, and are responsible for maintaining the stock. The chemical safety training that employers are required to provide must include how to interpret and use SDSs. Instruction on hazardous substance exposure is difficult without the data sheet to use as a starting point, so employers should request SDSs if they do not have an adequate supply.
SDSs must be readily accessible for reference when employees have questions or need to ensure they are taking the proper precautions as they come into contact with dangerous substances. The sheets should be located in the actual work area, and kept either physically in a binder or electronically on an accessible computer. Many manufacturers send a paper copy of the SDS with the chemical order. Keeping track of this copy is essential, as you cannot simply rely on using Google or any other type of search engine to find accurate SDSs.
The Sixteen Sections of Safety Data Sheets
When an employer receives a chemical from a distributor or manufacturer, the accompanying SDS should have sixteen informational sections that have been filled out. All sheets are standardized regarding formatting and content and are required to appear in the following order; this allows people to quickly find the information they need, especially in the event of an emergency.
The sixteen sections of Safety Data Sheets are:
1) General Identification, which incorporates:
- Identification of the chemical
- Other common names or synonyms that the substance is known by
- Recommended uses of the chemical (a brief description of what the chemical does)
- Restrictions on use
- Supplier contact information (name, address, phone number) and emergency contact number
2) Identification of Hazards
- Hazard classification of the chemical (category number, hazard class such as explosive)
- Signal word (either “Danger” or “Warning”)
- Hazard statement(s)
- Precautionary statement(s)
- Descriptions of any hazards that are not otherwise classified
- For a mixture that has ingredients with unknown toxicity, there must be a description of the percentage of these ingredients within the mixture
3) Information on Ingredients and Composition, which includes substances, mixtures, and chemicals where a trade secret is claimed.
- Chemical name, as well as common names and synonyms
- Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) number and other unique identifiers
- Impurities and stabilizing additives (which contribute to classification)
- Same information that is required for substances
- Chemical name and concentration (percentage) of all ingredients that are classified as health hazards and either are present within the mixture above their cut-off concentration limits, or are a health hazard even below these limits
- Exact percentages of each ingredient, unless the situation requires a concentration range (trade secret claim, batch-to-batch variation, or the SDS regards a group of very similar mixtures)
- When a trade secret is claimed:
- There must be a statement that the identity of the chemical and/or exact concentration has been withheld due to a trade secret.
4) Measures for First Aid
- Description for initial care given by untrained responders (e.g., coworkers in close proximity) to an individual who has been exposed to the chemical
- First aid instructions for routes of exposure (ingestion, skin/eye contact, inhalation)
- Description of immediate effects and symptoms
- Description of symptoms that are acute or delayed
- Recommendations for medical care and special treatment if necessary
5) Measures for Firefighting
- Recommendations on suitable extinguishing equipment for a fire caused by the chemical
- Information on extinguishing equipment that is not suitable for certain situations
- Advice on hazards that may develop during the fire (e.g., hazardous combustion products that develop as the chemical burns)
- Recommendations on special precautions or protective equipment for firefighters
6) Measures for Accidental Release
- Recommendations on the appropriate response to leaks, spills, or releases, such as cleanup or containment practices that are meant to prevent/minimize exposure to the environment, property, and people
- Recommendations for distinguishing between small and large spills
- Recommendations of personal precautions and protective equipment, such as wearing gloves and providing sufficient ventilation
- Emergency procedures; this includes instructions for evacuations, protective clothing, and consulting experts
- Materials and methods for containment (e.g., covering drains)
- Specific cleanup procedures pertaining to the specific chemical. This covers absorbent materials, vacuuming, cleaning, decontamination, and neutralization
7) Handling and Storage
- Guidance on safe handling practices and safe storage conditions for the chemical
- Recommendations for minimizing release during handling and storage
- Advice on hygiene practices, such as prohibiting eating and drinking in work areas
- Recommendations for handling in the proximity of other incompatible chemicals; the SDS will define whether the product is incapable of existing with certain other chemicals in section 10
- Advice on storage requirements (such as ventilation)
8) Personal Protection and Exposure Controls
- Indicates recommended exposure limits such as ACGIH’s Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) and OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs)
- Describes appropriate engineering controls such as local exhaust ventilation or using the chemical only in an enclosed system
- Recommendations for personal protective measures to prevent illness and injury, such as the use of PPE; describes any special requirements for glove material, type of respirator, etc.
9) Chemical and Physical Properties
- Every substance or mixture is associated with chemical and physical properties. This section must provide information for these properties:
- Appearance (color, physical state, etc.)
- Flammability (gas, solid)
- Upper/lower explosive limits
- Decomposition temperature
- Auto-ignition temperature
- Odor and odor threshold
- Partition coefficient
- Vapor pressure and vapor density
- Evaporation rate
- Flash point
- Relative density
- Initial boiling point and boiling range
- Melting point/freezing point
- If there are other relevant properties, such as the dust deflagration index, these may be added. The above is the minimum information that is required to be provided for any chemical.
10) Reactivity and Stability, which is separated into three parts.
- Description of test data for the specific chemical; this can be for a family/class of the chemical, as long as the data adequately represents that anticipated hazard
- Chemical stability:
- Indication of whether the chemical is unstable or stable under normal conditions and temperatures
- Description of stabilizers required to maintain chemical stability
- Explanation of safety issues in the event of the product’s physical appearance changing
- Description of possible hazardous reactions and the conditions under which these reactions could occur. This should include a statement on whether the chemical will polymerize or react, which may release heat or pressure
- List of all classes of incompatible materials, which the chemical could react to and cause a hazardous situation
- List of all conditions that should be avoided, such as vibrations or static discharge
- List of known or anticipated hazardous decomposition products that may be produced due to storage or use
11) Toxicological Information
- Provides the numerical measures of toxicity (for example, the median lethal dose)
- Indicates the routes of exposure (skin/eye contact, ingestion, or inhalation)
- Description of immediate, delayed, or chronic effects from both short-term and long-term exposure; includes symptoms from the lowest to the most severe
- Indicates whether the chemical has been found to be a potential carcinogen by OSHA or IARC, or if it is listed in the National Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens
12) Ecological Information
- Evaluates the impact of the chemical if it were released to the environment
- Provides data from acute and chronic toxicity tests that have been performed on organisms such as fish, plants, birds, and algae
- Indicates whether the chemical may degrade in the environment through biodegradation, hydrolysis, or oxidation
- Provides results of testing for bioaccumulation potential
- Provides results of leaching or adsorption studies; potential for the chemical to move from soil to groundwater
- Describes other adverse effects such as global warming potential, ozone layer depletion potential, and environmental fate
13) Considerations for Disposal
- Provides guidance on appropriate disposal methods, reclamation of the chemical or its container, recycling, and safe handling practices
- Describes proper disposal containers; discourages sewage disposal
- Describes chemical and/or physical properties that may affect disposal activities
- Provides special precautions for incineration or landfill disposal
- To minimize exposure during disposal, refer to section 8
14) Information for Transport
- Provides guidance for transporting and shipping the chemical by rail, sea, air, or road
- UN number (four-figure identification number of the chemical) and UN shipping name
- Transport hazard classes; based on the degree of hazard, packing group number
- Potential environmental hazards (e.g., identify if it is a marine pollutant)
- Guidance for transportation in bulk according to standards such as the International Bulk Chemical Code (IBC Code)
- Special precautions that transport employees should be aware of or comply with
15) Regulatory information
- Identifies the environmental, health, and safety regulations for the chemical that are not described elsewhere on the sheet
- Any regional and/or national regulatory information (provided by OSHA, Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, or Department of Transportation)
16) Other Information
- Date of SDS preparation
- When the last revision was made
- Which changes have been made to a previous version
- Other useful information
Sections 1-8 contain information that will be helpful for people who need to understand the chemical quickly. These sections are listed first to be beneficial in the event of a medical emergency or chemical release, or to quickly ensure that the proper PPE is at hand before work begins.
It should be noted that sections 12-15 are the only ones that are not enforced by OSHA. However, they must be included to maintain the sheet’s consistency with GHS. A further note: if the preparer of the SDS doesn’t find relevant information for a certain section (ex: a chemical has no environmental impact so section 12 cannot be filled out), the preparer must explicitly state that there is no applicable information. Sections cannot be left blank.
Chemical Safety in the Workplace
By now, all facilities in the US should have upgraded to the SDS format for every chemical that they use. Businesses that are audited by OSHA and found to have missing or inadequate chemical information may be cited with a violation. Employees need to be fully aware of the risks that are involved with their daily operations, and they should also have an understanding of the steps they can take to improve their own safety as they handle chemicals.
Safety Data Sheets are integral to hazard communications and chemical safety; by having them on hand, SDSs play an important role in reducing the risk of a chemical accident, and help minimize the impact if an accident does occur.
- Material Safety Data Sheets [How-To Guide for Upgrading to SDS]
- GHS: The Globally Harmonized System for Labeling [Updated 2019]
- Process Safety Management
- GHS Label Creation
- GHS Label Information
- Fire Safety in the Workplace
- Emergency Spill Cleanup & Containment
- NFPA 704
- What is HAZCOM? (Hazard Communication Definition + OSHA Standards)