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Everything You Need to Know About Safety Data Sheets

By Daniel Clark
Published: July 11, 2022
Key Takeaways

Making Safety Data Sheets available and accessible is a critical step for keeping workers safe from chemical hazards.

Caption: Chemical storage Source: industryview / iStock

Chemical substances are common in practically every workplace. Managing them can be complex, since they come in endless varieties. You've got those that clean, those that power, lubricate, color, catalyze reactions, or serve some other useful function. There are also those that don't come neatly packaged and contained. Rather, they are the waste or byproduct produced by various processes.

These chemicals might have benign effects on workers or be dangerously reactive, poisonous, flammable, or even radioactive. Because of this, employers must be aware of the properties of each and every chemical product on their worksites.

However, you can't expect workers to have a comprehensive, encyclopedic knowledge of every chemical with which they might come into contact. Instead, you need to make sure all that information is available and readily at hand.

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Should someone be exposed to vapors, for example, whoever is attending to them should be able to quickly and easily find out which remedies are appropriate and which approaches would make matters worse. Workers should also know about the precautions they should take when using the chemical, so they can prevent these kinds of exposure incidents in the first place.

All that crucial information is helpfully located in one place: the Safety Data Sheet.

What Is a Safety Data Sheet?

Safety Data Sheets (SDS, formerly Material Safety Data Sheets) are part of the larger Global Harmonized System (GHS) formalized by the United Nations and incorporated in to national standards such as OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard and Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS).

GHS is an identification and communication standard for chemical hazards that is used world-wide. It makes use of standardized labelling requirements, such as pictograms, required information, training, and responsibilities.

Safety Data Sheets are one of the system's major requirements. In a global economy where material can come from anywhere in the world, this standardization was urgently needed. Now that we have agreement on how to identify and document hazards, basic familiarity with GHS equips workers to protect themselves from chemical hazards no matter where the products are from or where the work is taking place.

(Learn more about Safety Symbols and Their Meaning)

Where Can You Get Safety Data Sheets?

The supplier of a chemical agent will provide the customer with a Safety Data Sheet for that chemical. The customer can then retain a copy and make it available to their workers.

In most cases, the SDS for a product can be downloaded from the manufacturer’s website and hard copies are often included in deliveries of chemicals. Generally speaking, these documents are fairly easy to find and widely available online.

Who Manages the Safety Data Sheets?

The employer is responsible for cataloguing Safety Data Sheets for all chemicals present on their worksites. They must also make them available to workers, rather than chucking it into a pile of papers for "filing."

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The general expectation is that users will read and be familiar with the SDS for any chemicals hey may work with or be around.

What Is Included in a Safety Data Sheet?

The 16 sections of an SDS are standard, and must include the following information:

  1. Identification
  2. Hazard(s) identification
  3. Composition / information on ingredients
  4. First aid measures
  5. Firefighting measures
  6. Accidental release measures
  7. Handling and storage
  8. Exposure control / personal protection
  9. Physical and chemical properties
  10. Chemical stability and reactivity
  11. Toxicological information
  12. Ecological information
  13. Disposal considerations
  14. Transport information
  15. Regulatory information
  16. Other information

Additional Information

Looking at these section titles, it should be fairly obvious that this is an incredibly important resource. There is, moreover, a great deal of useful information nested in each section.

In section 9 (Physical and chemical properties), for example, a chemical’s vapor density is listed, which gives you a short hand to know if this material is heavier or lighter than air. Knowing this detail can help you determine where to permit its use, since you now know where it is likely to move around an area by rising or sinking in air.

In the same section, you’ll find the flashpoint information which tells you the lowest temperature at which a liquid gives off enough vapor for ignition – which is closely related to the upper and lower explosive limits. This kind of information will inform if a substance, for example, may be used in a confined space without deliberate ventilation.

(Learn 5 Essential Exposure Limit Terms Worth Knowing)

Chronic Health Hazards

The hazard identification and toxicological information sections both help identify the kinds of hazards posed by use of the product. Burns and irritation are among the most common listed effects, but it’s important to understand that not every hazard is so immediate and obvious.

Products may contain “sensitizers” such as formaldehyde that have no immediate effects but may trigger an allergic response on repeated exposures. They may be suspected teratogens like toluene that could affect fetal development, or a mutagen like naphthalene that can introduce heritable changes to reproductive germ cells.

Then, of course, there are carcinogens such as benzene whose effects may not be evident until years or decades later. There is so much information to be aware of in order to work safely with a product, it makes good sense to avail yourself of the data that has be rigorously tested and curated for you in the SDS.

(Learn more about Toxic Heavy Metals and Occupational Cancer Risks)

First Aid for Chemical Exposure

The first aid section has some of the most important information, principally what to do if this material should find its way onto or into your body.

A typical recommendation is to flush the affected area with water. Some materials, however, react with water in seriously energetic and harmful ways. Workers should be aware of that kind of thing before they even twist the cap off. Fortunately, the section on exposure control provides critical details about how to avoid the exposure in the first place with specific PPE and control requirements.

Making the Information Available

In most conventional scenarios, a worker consulting an SDS would mostly be looking for a few main things at a glance:

  • What hazard does this pose?
  • How severe is that hazard?
  • Does this chemical combust?
  • What do I do if there is an exposure or release?

The other information is certainly relevant, but more so in limited, specific applications (like how to transport it safely).

It is wise for employers to take an active role in disseminating the information in the SDS. Piling them into a binder and letting them collect dust on a shelf somewhere is a common approach, but one that wastes the resource and will not encourage uptake with the workers. Instead, use your stock of Safety Data Sheets as easy, ready-made, relevant materials for review in safety meetings. That way, you can ensure that all employees have at least a basic level of familiarity with the information contained in them.

Don't Squander This Valuable Safety Tool

Preparation is the key to controlling hazards, and the SDS is an important resource when preparing for any task involving a chemical product. Few of us are experts in chemistry and we rarely even know what's in the products we use.

Fortunately, all the work of gathering the detailed safety information has already been done for us. All we have to do is read.

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Written by Daniel Clark

Profile Picture of Daniel Clark

Daniel Clark is the founder and President of Clark Health and Safety Ltd., providing safety and quality consultation across various industries in Calgary, Alberta. Daniel has a Bachelor of Science degree, certification in health and safety, certificates in both CAD design and CNC, auditing certifications and the designation of Canadian Registered Safety Professional. Being raised and practicing in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s energy industry, most of Daniel’s career has been energy related. He has performed safety and quality roles from field supervision to office-based administration and management. Daniel’s consulting business has worked with organizations offering engineering services, restoration, pipeline, environmental, manufacturing and food service.

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