December 28 , 2000
Unraveling the Mystery of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)
By Maureen Alvarez, CIH, CSP
I remember the first time I read
a Material Safety Data Sheet, better known as the MSDS. I
was working as a college intern for a Fortune 500 company.
I was lucky enough to have landed an intern job within my
field of study (Toxicology) and I found myself working within
the Safety Department reporting to the Corporate Industrial
Hygienist. My first assignment was to alphabetize the MSDS's.
I was told there were over 1000 MSDS's to be alphabetized
and I thought "how hard can that be?"
I was eager to tackle this assignment
so I immediately began sorting through the pile of MSDS's
to find the sheets starting with an "a". Within
minutes, I realized this was not such an easy task. Do I
sort by "product name", "chemical name",
"manufacturer", "CAS number"? Why were
the MSDS's all in different formats? Wasn't there a standard
MSDS for all manufacturers to follow?
Needless to say, this first assignment
with MSDS's took me several months to complete. Since that
time, some 18 years later, I still find myself reading and
interpreting MSDS's. I have read thousands and thousands
of MSDS's and consider them to be essential documents for
the workplace. These documents contain important information
on the chemicals being used and handled at your work location,
As a health and safety professional, you must be able to read
and understand the valuable information on the MSDS.
This article will review the major
sections of an MSDS and highlight the important health and
safety information that you need to be familiar with. Lets
The MSDS typically contains the
name, address, phone number, etc.
and Explosion Hazard Data
for Safe Handling and Use
Let's take a look at each section
and review the information contained there. If you have an
MSDS available, I suggest you follow along using one of your
The first section of the MSDS gives
the manufacturer's name and address, trademark, product name,
generic chemical names, and other names used for the chemical.
The first section also contains the emergency phone number.
The name that is on the MSDS must be the same as on the product
label. This section may also contain the date that the MSDS
was prepared or the date when the information was last updated.
Section II Hazardous Ingredients/Chemical
The Hazardous Ingredients section
should list the names of all hazardous chemicals that make
up the product, and airborne exposure limits for each chemical
including OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL), ACGIH Threshold
Limit Values (TLV) and any other known exposure limits for
each ingredient in the product. You should also find the
Chemical Abstract Services number or CAS # for each chemical
listed. The CAS # is a registry number for every chemical,
similar to our own social security numbers.
Within this section you should
also find the percent listed for each chemical ingredient
with the expectation that 100% of the chemical ingredients
have been listed for you. If you find that your MSDS does
not contain a list of up to 100% of the hazardous ingredients,
then you should contact the manufacturer and speak to the
chemist. This person is the most knowledgeable about what
is contained within the product and he/she should be able
to give you the missing information. Don't expect the chemist
to give you their product formula, most often they will only
be able to tell you if the missing ingredients are alcohol
based, solvent based, acids, etc. and what percent of the
mixture they are.
Section III Physical/Chemical
The Physical Properties section
of the MSDS provides technical, chemical information that
will help the Industrial Hygienist or Safety Professional
evaluate the true hazards of the material.
Some of the more commonly listed
terms are vapor pressure (how volatile the material is), vapor
density (how dense the vapors are compared to air), specific
gravity (will the material float or sink in water), evaporation
rate, appearance and odor.
I suggest you familiarize yourself
with the terms listed in this section so you will understand
the properties of the materials that you have. A good chemical
dictionary will provide you with the proper definitions.
Seciton IV Fire and Explosion
The Fire Protection or Flammability
Data section tells whether the chemical is Flammable, Combustible,
Explosive or none of these. It will also tell you the type
of fire extinguisher to use for fires involving this material.
The single most important piece
of information in this section is the Flashpoint. The flashpoint
is the temperature at which the material will give off enough
vapors so that the vapors will ignite, or catch fire, when
a spark is present. The spark can come from a cigarette,
welding, cutting or grinding, friction, static electricity
or even from turning on a light switch.
If the flashpoint is <100 degrees
Fahrenheit, the material is Flammable and can usually ignite
from a spark at room temperature. If the flashpoint is >100
degrees Fahrenheit, the material is Combustible and will not
ignite at room temperature, it must be heated before it will
give off enough vapors to ignite from a spark.
Section V Reactivity Data
Some chemicals may need special
storage conditions and may become dangerous if they are stored
improperly or if they are stored wit other chemicals that
they may react with. Some chemicals should not be stored
with others since they may mix and react to cause fires or
explosions in the event of leaks or spills in the area where
they are stored.
In this section of the MSDS there
may also be information about hazardous or toxic chemicals
that are generated by the breakdown of this product from a
fire or extreme heat as from a welding operation. A good
example of this is the breakdown of chlorinated hydrocarbons,
like 1,1,1- trichloroethane or methyl chloroform, to form
a very toxic gas called phosgene, which in extreme cases can
have fatal results.
Section VI Health Hazard
In the section on Health Effects,
you will find information on the symptoms or effects from
exposure to the chemical material and from overexposure to
the material. First aid information should also be present
that tells you what to do in the event of harmful exposures
or emergencies that occur from accidents or the improper use
of this material.
This section should also tell you
about the way this chemical material can effect you. Symptoms
or effects that happen while you are working with the product
or shortly after are called Acute Effects. These signs or
symptom of exposure will usually go away when you leave the
areas, or may get worse if you continue to work with the material.
Short term or acute effects of exposure are normally things
like: dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, shortness of breath,
dry irritated skin.
Chronic effects are symptoms that
happen over a long period of time from exposures that are
too high. You may not normally notice these effects because
they take so long to happen. To avoid exposures that are
too high, it is important to use controls like ventilation
and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Section VII Precautions
for Safe Handling and Use
In this section, you will find
Spill and Disposal information, Storage and Handling precautions
and any other special precautions for safe use that may apply.
Generally, any spill will be handled
by a Spill Response Team if is it is too big or complicated
for the workers in the area of the spill to handle. Most
liquid spills should be absorbed onto spill blankets or sorbent
pads and placed in an approved waste containers for disposal
as hazardous waste.
Section VIII Control Measures
In this section you will find information
suggested by the chemical material manufacturer for controls
to be used for this product. The controls may include ventilation,
PPE such as gloves, respirators and eye protection. Important
information may also include directions on not using this
material in a confined space or only using the material in
an open area. The manufacturer may also suggest Personal
Hygiene measures like washing before smoking, eating or drinking
or may suggest using work uniforms or coveralls to prevent
your own clothes from becoming contaminated.
Section IX Special Precautions
In this section, you will find
information about peculiar or unique problems with this material.
Generally, the information provided here is valuable regarding
health and safety issues as well as product quality. For
example, the information here may suggest storage in a dark,
cool area and prevent product freezing. All of these issues
pertain to maintaining the quality of the product.
As you can see, the MSDS is a long
and complex document that contains important chemical, safety
and health information on chemicals in the workplace. Please
become familiar with the MSDS's in your workplace. Read and
understand the precautions and information contained on the
MSDS. Most importantly, share this information with your
employees by educating and training them on the chemicals
in their workplace.
For more information on links to
MSDS sites, please check out the links within Osh.Net at http://www.osh.net/directory/ind_hyg/hygiene_01.htm.
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