How to Read MSDS Sheets

MSDS, or Material Safety Data Sheets, are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, for all hazardous chemicals in the workplace. Solvents, commercial cleaning products and even copier toner have certain properties that require specific instructions for managing skin contact, inhalation, ingestion, combustion and spills.

Read to reduce risk

MSDS are presented in a straightforward, easy-to-read format designed for anyone to understand. While there is no set template for the look of an MSDS, each sheet includes the properties of the chemical and what should occur in the case of emergency:

  • The chemical's name and common names for the chemical; chlorine bleach known as CloroxR, for example
  • Hazardous ingredients and the safe exposure limits as set by OSHA
  • The physical qualities of the chemical; how it looks or smells
  • Fire or explosion data including the lowest temperature at which the chemical could catch fire and the best way to extinguish that fire
  • The reactivity of that chemical when it comes in contact with air, water or other chemicals
  • Health hazards for skin exposure and breathing vapor, how it may make an existing medical condition worse, and emergency first aid
  • Usage, handling and storage that includes proper cleanup of an accidental spill or leak
  • Special protection and precautions such as any personal protective equipment you must wear to safely use the chemical
  • Identity of the manufacturer that created the MSDS and the emergency phone number

MSDS and the law

  • OSHA requires that the original manufacturer or importer of a product provide MSDS to their commercial customers. The hazard information should then go with the substance if it is shipped to another firm, and so on. It's called the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard. OSHA requires employers to provide these MSDS for all hazardous materials in their workplace.
  • In the United States OSHA, in its Hazard Communication standard 1910.1200, requires "All employers to provide information to their employees about the hazardous chemicals to which they are exposed, by means of a hazard communication program, labels, and other forms of warning, safety data sheets, and information and training."
  • To read and use them, the MSDS must be stored by a means that is easily accessible to every worker on every shift at every site. That could include printed copies in a notebook stored in a common location but not, for example, on a computer in a locked office.
  • OSHA does not require MSDS of common household consumer products such as glass cleaner as long as it's being used the same way the typical consumer would use them.
  • The Right to Know law says that individuals have the right to know the chemicals in their workplace that have the risk for potential exposure. Employers have an obligation to inform their employees and direct them to the location of the MSDS of each substance. This can be accomplished through classroom instruction, online interactive classes or in several other ways as long as it allows employees an opportunity to ask questions. Training for non-English-speaking employees must be presented in a way that can be understood.
  • Plenty of helpful information can be found on the OSHA Web site under the header of hazard communication.
  • While listing the risks for some chemicals may seem like overkill, even something relatively safe still requires information for ingestion, spills, disposal, and storage. As an employer, it's better to be safe for safety's sake.
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