Safety data sheets (SDS) provide critical information about the hazards of substances and how they can be safely handled, used, stored, and disposed of. They communicate information on a chemical’s toxicity, health effects, physical properties, fire and explosion data, reactivity, storage, disposal, protective equipment, and spill-handling procedures. SDS is essential to hazard communication and occupational safety and health programs in workplaces that use hazardous chemicals. Understanding who is legally responsible for providing these SDS is critical to ensuring compliance and security.
In this essay, we will examine the legal obligations around SDS provision in detail. We will start by looking at what exactly SDS is and the critical information they contain. We will then explore why access to SDS is vital for workers handling hazardous substances. Next, we will analyze the regulations stipulating the SDS provision’s legal duties, focusing on the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)’s Hazard Communication Standard. Finally, we will summarise the critical responsibilities of manufacturers, distributors, importers, and employers and look at how workers can access the SDS they require.
What are Safety Data Sheets?
Safety data sheets, previously known as material safety data sheets (MSDS), are detailed information sheets prepared by manufacturers and suppliers of chemical substances and mixtures. They provide comprehensive details about the intrinsic hazards of chemical products and advice on their safe usage. SDS are an essential component of the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200), which requires chemical manufacturers, distributors, and importers to provide SDS for each hazardous chemical to downstream users.
The specific content requirements of SDS are standardized internationally by the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). SDS must be written in English and contain 16 sections covering:
- Identification of product and manufacturer
- Hazard identification
- Composition and ingredient information
- First-aid measures
- Firefighting measures
- Accidental release measures
- Handling and storage of information
- Exposure controls and personal protection
- Physical and chemical properties
- Stability and reactivity information
- Toxicological information
- Ecological information
- Disposal considerations
- Transport information
- Regulatory information
- Other info, including the preparation date
SDS provides comprehensive details about potential hazards and safety precautions for chemicals in a standardized format. Access to this information is critical for protecting anyone handling, using, or exposed to hazardous substances, including workers, emergency responders, transporters, consumers, and environmental agencies.
The Importance of Safety Data Sheets
Access to SDS is an essential pillar of occupational safety and health programs for hazardous chemical organizations. They provide detailed information that allows employers and workers to identify chemical hazards and implement appropriate controls and safe work practices. Some of the key reasons why SDS are so important include:
- Hazard identification – The hazard classification section highlights the intrinsic dangers of the chemical, such as flammability, reactivity, acute toxicity, carcinogenicity, environmental hazards, etc. This allows the selection and implementation of suitable controls.
- Exposure controls – The SDS stipulates occupational exposure limits, engineering controls, and personal protective equipment (respirators, gloves, eye protection, etc) required to minimize worker exposure.
- Safe handling procedures – SDS guides secure handling, storage, transport, and disposal to prevent uncontrolled releases, harmful exposures, and dangerous chemical reactions.
- Emergency procedures – First aid, firefighting, spill clean up, and other emergency response measures are detailed to deal with potential incidents.
- Health effects – Workers are informed of acute and chronic (long-term) health effects, allowing medical surveillance and early identification of chemical-related diseases.
In summary, SDS is a vital component of occupational chemical safety programs. They provide detailed intrinsic hazard information and guidance that allows informed decisions to be made to protect the safety and health of workers and others exposed to chemical products.
Regulations on the Provision of Safety Data Sheets
A range of regulations place legal duties on chemical manufacturers, distributors, importers, and suppliers to provide SDS to recipients of hazardous chemicals. The principal rules are outlined below:
OSHA Hazard Communication Standard
The critical regulation on SDS in the United States is OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200). First issued in 1983, chemical manufacturers, distributors, or importers must provide Safety Data Sheets to communicate hazards to downstream users. The latest version fully aligns the HCS with the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) for hazard classification and labeling of chemicals.
The manufacturer or importer of a hazardous chemical has specific duties under the revised HCS 2012:
- Identify and classify chemical hazards based on the GHS criteria.
- Provide label elements such as pictograms, signal words, hazard statements, and precautionary statements based on the GHS.
- Provide a Safety Data Sheet for each hazardous chemical to downstream users that accurately conveys the hazard information.
Chemical distributors are also responsible for ensuring SDS are provided to customers at the time of initial shipment and any time they are revised.
The information on the label and SDS must be in English and include minimum specified content as per Appendix C and D of the revised HCS 2012.
European Union Regulations
The European Union Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 aims to improve the protection of human health and the environment from chemical risks. It places responsibility on manufacturers, importers, downstream users, and distributors to manage the risks from chemicals and provide appropriate safety information.
Under REACH, the primary obligations around SDS (called Material Safety Data Sheets in Europe) include:
- Manufacturers and importers must provide recipients with an SDS for hazardous substances or mixtures.
- Distributors must pass on SDS to customers with the initial delivery and any updates.
- SDS must be written in the official language(s) of the Member States where the substance or mixture is placed on the market.
REACH specifies the 16-section SDS content requirements aligned with the GHS, which improves consistency.
Most other countries have similar regulations on providing SDS by chemical suppliers and manufacturers to recipients of hazardous chemicals. Examples include:
- Canada’s Hazardous Products Regulations under the Hazardous Products Act
- Australia’s model work health and safety laws require the provision of current SDS
- South Africa’s Hazardous Chemical Substances Regulations
- China’s Regulations on Safety Management of Hazardous Chemicals
So, in summary, there are comprehensive global regulations requiring chemical companies to provide detailed hazard communication to users through labels and standardized safety data sheets. But who has specific responsibilities under these regulations?
Responsibilities for Provision of Safety Data Sheets
The duty to provide SDS primarily falls on manufacturers, importers, and distributors of hazardous chemicals under the various hazard communication regulations. Some of the critical obligations are:
Chemical manufacturers have a core responsibility to:
- Identify and classify the hazards of substances or mixtures according to accepted criteria such as GHS.
- Conduct toxicology and hazard testing to determine risks.
- Prepare an SDS for each hazardous chemical or product containing dangerous ingredients.
- Provide an appropriate GHS-compliant label on containers.
- Provide SDS and labels to downstream distributors, processors, or users of the chemicals.
- Update SDS and labels promptly when new hazard information is identified.
Importers of hazardous chemicals have similar responsibilities to manufacturers:
- Obtain or develop SDS and labels for imported dangerous chemicals from foreign suppliers.
- Ensure imported chemicals have GHS-compliant classifications and labels.
- Provide SDS and adequately labeled containers or packages to downstream distributors and users in the country.
- Rapidly update SDS and labels if new information on hazards becomes available.
Distributors, including wholesalers, retailers, and transporters must:
- Pass on current SDS provided by the manufacturer or importer to customers at the time of initial shipment.
- Provide updated SDS to customers when revisions are received from suppliers.
- Avoid shipping hazardous chemicals to customers if there is no valid SDS.
- Ensure hazardous chemical containers or packages are correctly labeled.
Employers have duties around SDS under OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard, including:
- They maintain a library or SDS database for all hazardous chemicals in their workplace.
- Ensuring the SDS are accessible to workers during all work shifts.
- They obtain SDS from manufacturers, importers, or distributors or directly request them from the chemical supplier if they are not provided.
- We are providing worker training on interpreting information on SDS and labels.
- We are updating the SDS library promptly when new information is received.
So, in summary, the core legal responsibility lies with manufacturers, importers, and distributors to provide SDS and labels to customers receiving hazardous chemical products. Employers must also play an active role in collecting and managing SDS to ensure worker access.
Accessing Required Safety Data Sheets
Workers handling hazardous chemicals have a right of access to the SDS. But how can they obtain the required SDS if not provided? Here are some recommendations:
- Firstly, request your employer to provide the SDS from their chemical hazard communication program. They must maintain a comprehensive SDS library and provide access.
- The manufacturer, importer, or distributor should automatically provide an SDS on the initial purchase of new chemicals or products. But if not, directly contact them to request the current SDS.
- Search the manufacturer or supplier’s website, which often has SDS available for download. Some major chemical companies have extensive searchable databases.
- Use third-party SDS providers – paid services provide SDS for most chemicals, e.g., MSDSonline, or access international SDS repositories like IPCS INCHEM.
- Contact chemical registration authorities (e.g., EPA TSCA in the US) who may be able to access SDS, especially for older legacy chemicals.
- For mixtures where the SDS is unavailable, request chemical composition details from the manufacturer or conduct substance analysis to determine hazardous ingredients and applicable SDS.
- Where SDS cannot be accessed from suppliers, prepare your own SDS using hazard determination, risk assessment data, and information on analogous chemicals.
Having ready access to SDS is vital for safe chemical management. Workers can access this information under OSHA’s “right to know” provisions. Persistently requesting SDS from employers, manufacturers, and suppliers ensures this information is available.
In summary, safety data sheets are universally recognized as essential sources of detailed hazard communication on the intrinsic dangers of chemical substances and mixtures. They empower informed risk management by regularly handling or exposure to chemicals by workers, emergency responders, transporters, consumers, and other stakeholders. Regulations globally mandate the provision of SDS to recipients of hazardous chemicals by manufacturers, importers, and distributors to meet their duty of care responsibilities. Employers also have obligations to actively collect, manage, and ensure worker access to SDS. Knowing exactly who is responsible for providing SDS helps target requests and drive compliance with right-to-know legislation, improving the protection of human health and our environment from the adverse effects of hazardous chemicals.