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Myths about MSDSs

Caoimhín P. Connell, Forensic IH

What is an MSDS anyway?
The material safety data sheet, also known as the MSDS, is a document which has been prepared by or for a manufacturer, distributor, and/or importer of a product. The document contains specific information about the product, and the document is the first line of communicating that information.

Contrary to common belief, currently, in the U.S., there are no regulations concerning who is qualified to prepare an MSDS. Similarly, there are no governing agencies to which the preparer is required to submit the MSDS for approval. There is no government agency which even has the authority to address the accuracy of the information contained in an MSDS.

The result is that MSDSs are often compiled by individuals who are completely unaware of industrial hygiene principles, regulatory requirements, chemical terms and even what the product contains; all vital for the effective transmittal of information to the end user or employee.

For the most part, MSDSs prepared in the U.S. are in response to a regulation promulgated by the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The regulation is called the Hazard Communication Standard (Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part (§)1910.1200).

Hazard Communication Standard
On August 24, 1987, OSHA promulgated it's Final Rule for the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). Also known as the "Employee Right to Know Regulation," the objective of the HCS was to require all employers to inform their employees of the chemical hazards and physical hazards associated with those chemicals within their work areas.

The essence of the HCS is to provide the employees with all of the information that they need to protect themselves, regardless of their background. The material back-bone of the hazard communication program is the MSDS and safety training sessions which are required by OSHA and are to be provided by the employer.

Not all products or materials need MSDSs or labels under the HCS. According to section §1910.1200(b)(5) et al, label exempted items include pesticides, foods, food additives, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, and beverage alcohols provided that these items are labeled according to the government agencies which govern their distribution and sale. Also exempted from the labeling and MSDS requirements are any hazardous waste as defined by the Solid Waste Disposal Act, (amended by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976), tobacco, wood products or "articles."

The term "article" exempts some employers from labeling and preparing MSDSs for their products. "Article" means a manufactured item which is formed to a specific shape or design during manufacture; which has an end-use function dependent in whole or in part upon its shape or design during end-use; and which does not release, or otherwise result in exposure to a hazardous chemical under normal conditions of use (§1910.1200(c)).

National Standards
Although just about anybody, with any level of education can prepare and distribute a MSDS which may be considered acceptable to OSHA, there are organizations who have attempted to provide guidance to their members on the preparation of MSDSs.

One example of a trade organization which provides guidance on MSDS preparation is the National Electrical Manufacturer's Association who has published a standard 1 in which it describes the purpose of an MSDS thus:

"The purpose of these Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) guidelines is to inform producers, distributors, engineers, code officials, and users about the potentially hazardous physical properties of welding consumables. They also assist in selecting the proper protection needed to protect personnel and property. User needs are a paramount concern in the development of MSDSs."

More generally, the American National Standards Institute, which is a national consensus standards organization has also published a standard on the preparation of MSDSs. 2 However ANSI prefaces their standard with the following statement:

"The use of American National Standards is completely voluntary; their existence does not in any respect preclude anyone, whether he has approved the standards or not, from manufacturing, marketing, purchasing, or using products, processes, or procedures not conforming to the standards."

The American National Standards Institute does not develop standards and will in no circumstances give an interpretation of any American Standard.

The ANSI standard succinctly identifies the audience for the state-of-the-art MSDSs when it says: 3

"Because of the information needs and diverse background of this expanded audience, the information in an MSDS must be presented in a more consistent and understandable form. Wherever possible, MSDS information should also be presented in a language the layman can understand....The MSDS is only one source of information on a material; as such, it is best used along with technical bulletins, labels, training, and other communications."

The MSDS is the employee's first line of protection; most importantly it identifies how to protect oneself via personnel protection equipment, signs and symptoms of exposure, and emergency first aid which can be performed on the factory floor, by the employee, in the event of exposure.

On a higher level, the MSDS provides important information to the industrial hygienist, and occupational health care provider. The single most important information that the MSDS provides to these two groups of professionals is the exact name of the constituents which comprise the material in question. There is little use in an employee being admitted into an emergency room and informing the treating physician that he has accidentally swallowed "Jone's Wonder Miracle Kleaner and Gardener's Helper." The treating physician will be at a loss to provide the best treatment and will have to settle for just addressing the symptoms. If, on the other hand, the employee brings in the MSDS which informs the physician that the material is a trichlorophenoxyacetic acid suspended in a toluene, n-hexane, phenol base, then appropriate biological monitoring may be implemented, and the physician may consult any one of a number of references for guidance on appropriate treatment.

State Of The Art
Unfortunately, as most industrial hygienists are aware, MSDSs are infamously known for providing inaccurate, incomplete, and often erroneous information. We have encountered MSDSs in which the preparer did not know what was in the product to which the MSDS applied, and simply made up chemical names that sounded scientific.

We have encountered unidentifiable chemical names, fabricated CAS numbers, erroneous occupational exposure limits, and potentially disastrous first aid procedures on MSDSs. We have encountered MSDSs which were so generic as to be useless (we even have encountered an MSDS which was supplied with a paper poster!)

A 1995 study conducted by a colleague,4 Rupert C. Burtan, M.D., M.P.H., D.P.H, (a Board Certified Occupational Physician), and another Industrial Hygienist evaluated 150 randomly selected MSDS. They assessed each MSDS for completeness and accuracy in five categories:

Proper identification of the hazardous chemical ingredients
Reported health effects
Suggested first aid procedures
Recommended personal protective equipment (PPE)
Exposure level regulations and guidelines

They found that in 11% of the MSDSs, they were unable to conclusively identify the hazardous components of the material; 63% of the MSDSs had inaccurate health effects data; 24% of the MSDSs had inadequate first aid information; and 53% of the MSDSs had inappropriate PPE information. In all, only 11% of the MSDSs reviewed were found to be accurate in all four health effects categories (reported health effects, first aid procedures, recommended PPE, and exposure level regulations).

The authors concluded (in part):

"MSDSs were never intended to serve as a primary literature surrogate for assessing and treating occupational exposures to hazardous substances. For this reason, they should not be held to the level of detail existing in the scientific literature."

We believe that among practicing industrial hygienists and occupational physicians, the overall inadequacy of MSDSs is well established.

The best MSDSs provide in clear uncomplicated terms, information aimed at the lowest literate level in our society and at the same time useful technical information for the industrial hygienist and a treating physician. That information should include methods of prevention of exposure, information on PPE, signs and symptoms of exposure, and first aid information. To the industrial hygienist, and the treating physician, the best MSDSs provide an accurate description of the constituents, and a toxicological review of exposure.

The FACTs Approach
Our personnel have extensive experience in preparing MSDSs for a wide range of products in the US and a broad, including trade secret protected industrial materials. Our personnel also have extensive experience in preparing MSDSs for proprietary metal alloys which required designing chemical, physical and explosivity tests necessary to gather appropriate data upon which the MSDSs were based.

Our personnel have prepared MSDSs for seed encapsulating gels in agriculture, detergents for the automobile industry, concrete cleaners, paint-strippers, materials for which no CAS number existed, and unusual products such as ultrafine powdered metals (including Al, Ag, and Fe in the reduced state), with nominal particle sized distributions of 95% 5 nanometers; alloys and oxides such as:

Examples of MSDSs

In the case of unusual hazards, our personnel developed explosion tests, static discharge tests and other investigative tests to better understand the hazards associated with such materials. Where a particular jurisdiction requires photoreactive compounds, we arrange those analysis.

We believe that we uniquely have the chemical, industrial hygiene, and toxicological expertise to prepare the MSDSs for a wide variety of materials. We have extensive in-house accessibility to various databases.

Typically, we prepare two versions of the MSDS; one for general distribution which takes advantage of the trade secrets provisions of the OSHA standard (§1910.1200(i)) and one version which discloses the trade secret information which according to §1910.1200(i)(3) must be provided to a health professional such as a physician, industrial hygienist, toxicologist, epidemiologist, or occupational health nurse who is providing medical or other occupational health services to exposed employees.


1 NEMA Standards Publication No. EW 5-1987. This standard may have been replaced with a newer standard and is provided here only as an example of a trade guideline.

2 ANSI Z400.1-1993, June 1993

3 Ibid.

4 Kolp, P. W, Williams, P.L., Burtan, Rupert C. Assessment of the Accuracy of Material Safety Data Sheets, Am. Ind. Hyg. Assoc. J. 56:178-183 (1995)

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