Chemical safety is among the many challenges that businesses and organizations face, even if they do not offer products or services that involve chemicals.

Because many chemicals are inherently harmful, companies that manufacture, import, distribute or rely on chemicals in some way must provide accurate information about them to employees who work with them. This information is presented in a safety data sheet (SDS).

When you think about the businesses that need SDSs, you likely imagine paint manufacturers, paper companies and petrochemical businesses. But even the school down the street should have one for the cleaning products the janitor uses each day.

The Introduction of Safety Data Sheets

As with many of today’s workplace safeguards, safety data sheet requirements were introduced relatively recently. In November 1983, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued the Hazard Communication Standard, 29 CFR 1910.1200, to “ensure that the hazards of all chemicals produced or imported are classified, and that information concerning the classified hazards is transmitted to employers and employees.”

Safety data sheets—previously known as material safety data sheets (MSDSs)—were used prior to 1983, but there was no regulatory standard that mandated their use across all industries in the U.S. Before 1983, OSHA standards for MSDSs were in place for the maritime industry, and some states required MSDSs in their right-to-know laws. Some MSDSs were used by companies that weren’t required to use them; to their credit, they saw them as a sound business practice.

Given the extensive global trade in chemicals and the universal need for chemical safety, the safety data sheet concept was adopted in Canada, Europe, China, Japan and Korea. But approaches to hazard assessment and communication varied from country to country, and the varying standards created a heightened risk for workers. Responding to the need for consistent standards, the United Nations released the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). Published in 2003, the GHS provides a basis for the harmonization of rules and regulations at the national, regional and international level.

Prior to the 2003 GHS release, international harmonization of classification and labelling was in place for physical hazards and acute toxicity only in the transport sector. The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development provided the mandate to harmonize chemical classification and labelling in other sectors, and a 1999 resolution by the UN Economic and Social Council led to the development of the GHS Sub-Committee, which made the GHS available for worldwide use and application.

The GHS is updated regularly, with the most recent, GHS Rev.9, published in 2021. OSHA updated its Hazard Communication Standard to align with the GHS (Revision 3) in 2012.

What is a Safety Data Sheet?

A SDS is a document that communicates critical information about a chemical to those who use it in an industrial or professional setting. In certain circumstances and under some country-specific regulations, a SDS may also be required for consumer use. A SDS identifies a chemical’s properties and the physical, health and environmental hazards it poses. It also includes guidelines for safe handling, storing and transporting chemicals.

A SDS contains several sections that address the following:

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

The Importance of the Safety Data Sheet

In a perfect world, accidents and spills involving hazardous chemicals would not happen. But in our imperfect world, spills and accidents still occur. The SDS is the go-to document that helps a worker understand the steps to take in the event of a chemical-related workplace spill, accident or unintended exposure.

A SDS provides information about spill clean-up procedures. (By the way, organizations are encouraged to have a spill response plan in place so a chemical spill can be handled safely and efficiently.)

The SDS also lays out first aid procedures that are necessary in the event of exposure to a hazardous chemical. The procedures enable an untrained first responder to administer first aid and stabilize the affected person until a trained first responder can attend to them.

Understanding the H Statement and P Statement in the SDS

Several GHS-mandated components go into a SDS. For example, the SDS should include a hazard statement (H Statement) for each hazard presented by the chemical substance. The H Statement uses standardized wording to communicate a product hazard and the degree of hazard presented. The SDS should also include a precautionary statement (P Statement) that recommends measures that should be taken to prevent or minimize the harmful effects of exposure to the chemical.

To ensure that critical information is not lost when SDS information is translated from one language to another, hazard statements are assigned a unique numerical code that follows a Hnxx format. In the code, H stands for hazard statement. A physical hazard is indicated where n equals 2; where n equals 3, a health hazard is indicated; and where n equals 4, an environmental hazard is indicated. The xx in the code is where the sequential numbering scheme is used.

SDS Authoring

Companies that manufacture or distribute a chemical are responsible for creating a SDS for that chemical and sharing it with the purchaser or user, as required by the applicable country-specific GHS implementation.

There are multiple steps recommended for the creation, or authoring of, a SDS:

  • Understand the requirements of country-specific GHS implementation to ensure that your SDS satisfies each one.
  • Be sure to include:
  • The chemical name used on the product label
  • Common name(s) if different from the label name
  • The disclosure of substances or ingredients with specific hazards that are above the cut-off / concentration limits according to the jurisdiction’s regulatory requirements
  • The specific hazards of the substance or the mixture
  • Collect data on the chemical’s physical and chemical properties, as well as its toxicity.
  • Determine all potential physical and health hazards presented by the chemical to ensure a comprehensive SDS for your product:
  • Check the UN Annex 4 – Guidance on the Preparation of Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for additional information you may need to include.
  • When possible, consult the manufacturer or supplier SDS for any raw materials in a mixture.

Why Use Software for Chemical Management and Product Compliance?

In today’s fast-paced world, easy access to information is paramount to smooth business operations. Chemical management software solutions aim to do just that: With SDS management software, your employees can pull product information at the drop of the hat. SDS management software makes it easier to quickly access information, revise it when necessary and use keywords to find the documents you need (rather than flip through a binder).

On the product compliance side, SDS authoring solutions support compliance efforts by providing and interpreting regulatory updates. This reduces the burden associated with regulatory monitoring and also allows manufacturers to enter new markets more easily.

How Can Sphera Help?

Sphera’s Chemical Management software helps companies achieve total control of their safety data sheets and chemical safety with robust inventory management and reporting capabilities. Sphera’s Product Compliance software allows you to author SDSs efficiently with the confidence that all regulatory and compliance requirements will be met for each market you sell into.

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