You may not realize it, but most of us use chemicals every day. You may have used toothpaste containing fluoride to clean your teeth, detergent with phosphate to wash your clothes, and salt to season your food. Unlike salt, where we know enough to use it safely, the same is not true of the chemicals we use in workplace settings.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires companies that make chemicals to provide safety data sheets (SDSs) that provide information about each chemical and the hazard it may pose to the workers using or near the chemical. The SDS also provides information about how to respond to help a worker exposed to a chemical in case of a fire, spill, explosion, release to the atmosphere or other incidents. And there is also information on how to prevent incidents such as how to safely store and handle the chemical.
The SDS tells managers and workers information about the hazard posed by the chemical in 16 sections:
- 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
It’s a lot of information to digest about a chemical. Let’s break it down so it’s easier to understand.
Overview of Chemical and Its Hazards
The first three sections tell us about the chemical that is the subject of the safety data sheet.
Section 1 includes information like its name(s), who makes it, how it should be used, and how it shouldn’t be used. The most important information here is the emergency contact information so that if an incident does occur, safety and health officials have someone to contact to get more information if they need it.
Section 2 on hazard identification tells workers whether the chemical is a physical hazard (e.g., catches fire easily) or reactive (i.e., contact with other chemicals results in toxic fumes as well as safety hazards). Section 3 provides detailed information on the exact composition of the product, which may be a mixture of chemicals.
Response in Case of an Incident
Sections 4-6 provide information on what to do if there is an incident. When working with a chemical, a worker may touch the chemical, and it may get in their eyes, or they might inhale it by accident. If this occurs, section 4 tells those immediately on the scene what first aid to provide until medical help arrives.
If the chemical catches fire, section 5 tells firefighters what fire extinguisher equipment to use and how to protect themselves. If the chemical is spilled, leaked, or released to the atmosphere, section 6 tells workers what personal protective equipment they should wear and what action to take in response.
Management of the Chemical
Sections 7-11 provide information to workers on how to safely handle and store the chemical (e.g., not where workers eat), what daily personal protective equipment to include in their workshop safety gear such as safety gloves and hard hats, allowable worker exposure levels, and detailed information about the chemical’s physical and chemical properties. The latter includes information such as when the chemical will react in normal temperatures and possible toxicological (health) effects.
The final sections, 12-15, are non-mandatory – that is, companies are not required to include them. This includes information on ecological impacts if animals, fish, insects, or plants are exposed; proper disposal, recycling, reclamation, and transportation; and special regulations. Section 16 is for any information workers should know not covered in the other sections.
Hopefully, you can now review a safety data sheet so you can protect yourself from the hazard a chemical might pose to you in your workplace.