Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Will OSHA Act to Improve MSDS: Twenty Years since MSDSs Entered the Safety Mainstream, Critics Say They Too Often Are Confusing and Unreliable

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Will OSHA Act to Improve MSDS: Twenty Years since MSDSs Entered the Safety Mainstream, Critics Say They Too Often Are Confusing and Unreliable

Article excerpt

Since last September, Ron Hayes, the director of the Fight Project and a member of the National Advisory Committee on Safety and Health, has been urging OSHA to take action to improve material safety data sheets (MSDSs).

With the promulgation of the hazard communication standard (HCS) in 1983, MSDSs took a central role in a regulatory scheme designed to ensure that workers had essential safety and health information about the potentially hazardous substances in their workplace. But as a 1996 NACOSH report noted, MSDSs serve a number of other purposes besides HCS and various audiences beyond the general work force.

"The MSDS is used to provide information to emergency responders and local planning authorities and also serves as a primary data source for health professionals working with exposed individuals," the report noted. "The information needs and presentation are different for all of these groups which contributes to the length of the MSDS."

When we asked readers how MSDSs could be improved, nearly everyone who responded cited the need to make them simpler to understand. One safety consultant said a "specific improvement would be to actually write them to help the user in their use of the chemical rather than as lawsuit protection...." An industrial hygienist in the petrochemical industry said they should be written in "plain, layman's English" because "most employees do not understand some of the technical language in MSDSs."

Respondents also criticized MSDSs for being too general and including boilerplate phrases that provide little guidance. Specifying the use of "chemical-resistant gloves," said an industrial hygienist, is "totally useless to anyone." A safety professional said PPE requirements should be specific for large or small quantities of a substance. He noted that a worker would need skin protection against phenol regardless of the quantity used because it can be absorbed through the skin, but PPE levels would vary for methyl alcohol depending on the amount in use.

One of the pet peeves about MSDSs is that they simply are not consistent. While the ANSI Z400.1 standard (now under revision) provides a template for uniform MSDS formatting, it remains a voluntary standard. The United Nation's Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) promises to drive the world community toward more uniformity in hazard identification and communication. In the meantime, noted a safety professional, "When training employees, it is difficult for them to understand why they just cannot go to section X in every MSDS to find PPE and in section Y to find physical properties. …

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