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Misconceptions About Safety Data Sheets

Posted by Katy Lyden on March 25, 2022 at 2:11 PM

In this day and age, we have access to more information in the palms of our hands than at any other time in history. While that’s usually a great thing, it can also sometimes become a problem when the information we’re receiving and then sharing isn’t complete, is missing context, or is simply misinterpreted.

These situations are what often lead to popular misconceptions and at times, they can be quite damaging. Surprisingly, one place where many misconceptions lurk is with how certain environmental, health, and safety regulations are understood.

Several such misconceptions can be found within the understanding of how Safety Data Sheets or SDS are supposed to be managed. In this article, we’ll talk about three such misconceptions surrounding Safety Data Sheets and provide you with a few resources to check the information out for yourselves.

#1: Every chemical must have an accompanying Safety Data Sheet

It sounds like this should be accurate, doesn’t it? From what we know about managing chemicals in the workplace and the requirement to provide a workplace that’s free of recognized hazards it would seem plausible for Safety Data Sheets to be required for every chemical in the workplace. But, surprisingly that’s not always the case.

When the employer can adequately demonstrate that certain products which meet the definition of a “consumer product” by the Consumer Product Safety Act are being used the same way that a consumer would use them, they would fall under the consumer products exemption found in 1200(b)(6)(ix) of the Hazard Communication Standard. But what does that mean exactly?

In every workplace, there are usually chemicals being used in the same way that a regular consumer would use them. For example, let’s look at the ordinary bathroom cleaner you’d buy in the cleaning aisle of a big chain store. When the normal consumer buys bathroom cleaner, they’re going to buy a bottle or two and they’re going to use it to clean their bathrooms. While every consumer is a little different with how often they clean their bathrooms, there’s a common understanding that goes along with the use of this product. 99% of consumers aren’t going to spend multiple hours a day using this product to clean their bathrooms nor are they going to use this product to clean things outside of the bathroom.

If an employer buys a bottle or two of this same bathroom cleaner and then uses it to clean their own bathrooms, they really don’t need to have a Safety Data Sheet for it because the exposure to the chemicals in the bathroom cleaner are the same as what a typical consumer would experience. Now, if that same employer buys a case of that bathroom cleaner and then uses it to clean bathrooms for 8 hours a day or uses it for some off label use to clean equipment parts, then the exposure to the chemicals in the bathroom cleaner are no longer “typical” and it becomes a hazard that requires an SDS.

Essentially, if an employer provides a product and can show that the product is being used in the workplace for the purpose intended by the manufacturer and/or importer and in the same frequency and duration of use so that the chemical exposure is not greater than the “range of exposures” that would reasonably be experienced by consumers, then an SDS is not typically needed. Unfortunately, there’s not a simple, clear-cut set of requirements for this exemption and it’s entirely up to the employer to determine what products, if any, fit into this category and because of this, many employers choose not to acknowledge this exemption.

#2 Every SDS must be kept on file for at least 30 years

If you’re an employer faced with the prospect of having to store every SDS for a period of 30 years and you’re wondering how on earth you’re going to do that, you can rest easy because you don’t typically have to. In fact, really the only time information from an SDS must be stored for a specific length of time is after an employee exposure occurs and even then, only parts of the SDS are needed. These requirements are specifically addressed in 1910.1020(d)(1)(ii) of the Toxic and Hazardous Substances standard and essentially state that after exposure, only the chemical name of the substance and where and when it was used must be retained for at least 30 years. Let’s look at an example of what we mean.

Suppose as part of a company’s manufacturing processes they use a substance that’s considered to be a “harmful physical agent” and suppose one day a worker inhales that harmful physical agent and becomes ill or injured. This situation would meet OSHA’s definition of an “exposure” and the employer would then be required to keep at least the name of the substance the worker was exposed to as well as when and where it was used on file for at least 30 years. Generally speaking, the employer is probably going to create a file for this worker where all the exposure information (including the SDS), any treatment records, and/or communications about the exposure are maintained. While some employers may not choose to keep the actual SDS itself and only keep the required information from that SDS, others may want to ensure they have additional information about that chemical substance if they should ever need it.

So, if you were concerned about having to store all the Safety Data Sheets you receive for 30 years, rest assured you don’t have to—unless your company has an internal policy requiring it.

#3 Storing SDS electronically & "What happens when the power goes out?"

We’ve saved this one for last because over the years this question has evolved a bit thanks to advancements in technology. Originally, the only feasible means of keeping Safety Data Sheets (called MSDS back then) was to keep them in paper form. Some employers chose to do that by using binders and others chose to have a central location with a file cabinet or something similar. Back then, the answer to the question “What happens when the power goes out and you need information about a chemical?” was simple—if the power goes out, you open a binder or file cabinet and use a flashlight to find the information you need.

As computers have become a more widely used tool for chemical management, the question of how employers can provide access to chemical safety data during an emergency and still meet OSHA’s requirements for “barrier-free, ready access” has been asked numerous times—and OSHA’s response has largely remained unchanged. If you review OSHA’s Letters of Interpretation about this subject, no matter what type of technology is being asked about, OSHA falls back on the same thing every time—that no matter the situation, workers must have barrier-free, ready access to chemical safety information in their work areas, regardless of where those work areas might be.

OSHA makes it very clear that whether it’s during emergencies, while workers are on remote job sites, and/or when workers must work between multiple job locations, if the technology being used to supply chemical safety information is limited because of location or situation, a backup must be provided. Additionally, whatever backup is chosen, it must also provide a barrier-free and immediate means for workers to access the needed information. Let’s look at a few examples of the acceptable options we’ve provided in the table below.

Main System

Possible Situations

 

 

Software or Electronic Database

  • During emergencies where power is affected
  • When workers travel between locations
  • When workers perform work at remote locations

Acceptable Backup Options

Paper Copies (regularly updated)

Telephone

Backup Laptop + Removable Drive

  • Provided in company vehicles
  • Provided to workers who must travel between sites and/or to remote sites
  • Provided in binder/cabinet where all workers can access at the main job location

 

  • May only be a backup to the primary system if the information is provided immediately via telephone & if the SDS is provided as soon as possible afterward
  • Separate laptop (kept fully charged and/or with a fully charged spare battery)
  • Removable Drive (thumb drive/jump drive, etc.)

 

It’s important to note that regardless of how an employer decides to comply with the standard, information on the primary and backup methods for accessing Safety Data Sheets must be provided in an employer’s written Hazard Communication Program.

Evaluate Regularly

Every employer wants to provide their workforce with the right tools to ensure they have the information they need, when they need it. To do this effectively, employers have to consider all different types of situations that might happen and then choose the best solutions for their needs. This is a process that should be done on a regular basis. Not only do needs change, but what was once an acceptable solution might no longer be and the worst time to figure this out is during an emergency.

If you’re in the process of re-evaluating how you’re currently managing your Safety Data Sheets and would like to hear about our new features for managing SDS, start a free trial today!

Topics: SDS, Workplace Health and Safety, Chemicals

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