It's easy to forget that the early Internet was devoted to the free exchange of information and ideas. Before commercial Web pages and obnoxious pop-up advertisements, cyberspace was a place where professionals and hobbyists networked, shared information and helped one another.
I won't deny that dollars drive Internet progress. Internet access has never been easier or faster. Improved search engines make locating information a breeze. But this progress comes at a cost. Major portions of the World Wide Web are steeped in annoying marketing with the sole goal of separating Web surfers from their hard-earned cash.
Fortunately, there are still places in cyberspace where the spirit of sharing lives on. Places where the primary motive is not profit, but the desire to help. One of the best examples in the occupational safety and health community is the Vermont Safety Information Resources Inc. (SIRI) Web site at hazard.com (Figure 1).
Hazard.com began as a partnership between Ralph Stuart and Dan Woodard. Many of you may know Stuart through his stewardship of the SAFETY listserver at the University of Vermont. Established in 1989, SAFETY is an electronic mailing list devoted to environmental and occupational health and safety issues.
With more than 2,900 subscribers, SAFETY is an excellent resource. Discussions include chemical safety, indoor air quality, interpretation of standards and regulations, hazardous waste disposal and electronic resources. To get a flavor of the SAFETY list, click on the "scan latest" link at hazard.com/mail. This page also provides access to the American Industrial Hygiene Association's Industrial Hygiene list, the Occupational & Environmental Medicine list and Health and Safety Canada list.
Frustrated by the lack of easy access to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), Woodward and Stuart teamed up in 1994 to publish the Department of Defense CD-ROM MSDS collection on the World Wide Web. Over the years, the site's search engine expanded to search not only the CD-ROM collection, but also manufacturer MSDS collections.
"The real strength of our MSDS collection compared to other MSDS collections available on the Web," according to Ralph Stuart, "is the list of direct links to manufacturers' sites that Dan has collected and included in the search interface."
The MSDS collection is only intended to provide convenient public access to chemical safety information. "We specifically do not want it to be relied upon for compliance purposes," states Stuart. "My interpretation of OSHA's HAZCOM standard is that the employer is responsible for assuring the quality of the MSDSs used by their employees. I don't think that the Web site is appropriate for that use. We much prefer that people use MSDSs direct from the manufacturer rather than MSDSs from the CD collection."
Despite this disclaimer, manufacturers are invited to use the Web site to distribute data sheets at hazard.com/msds/about.html. "OSHA imposes a duty on manufacturers to provide an MSDS for each product to the customer at no additional charge.
Electronic access such as this archive can satisfy that duty if the customer wishes to use it and no fee is charged...this could significantly reduce the cost of MSDS distribution, as well as assuring any MSDS which is accessed is the latest version."
In addition to mailing list archives and MSDS access, Hazard.com has a thriving library of health and safety documents, graphics and presentations. "I began to use the Web site to share public domain files that people on the SAFETY list expressed an interest in," commented Stuart. "When people wanted to start sharing files via the list and attachments were too large to be a practical way to do this (as well as creating virus concerns), the file library naturally developed. …