Union members who work around chemicals frequently ask, 'What is this stuff and what is it doing to me?' The answer is to ask for the Material Safety Data Sheet (or as they are also referred to, Safety Data Sheet - SDS). Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) provide information about substances, and the hazards associated with those substances. Under Chapter 4 of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, 2017 (Hazardous Substances and Materials) employers must provide OHS reps with access to SDSs of all hazardous substances in the workplace.
Substances can be:
- Mixtures (combination of substances)
- Natural or artificial
- In a liquid or solid form
- A gas, vapour, fume, mist; and
- Dusts used in the workplace
An SDS contains more detailed information about health and safety aspects of hazardous substances than the label does. It describes:
- Properties and uses of a substance;
- Health hazard information;
- Precautions for use; and
- Safe handling requirements
Manufacturers and importers of substances prepare and distribute SDSs. Suppliers of substances are responsible for distributing these SDSs. They must be in English, relevant to Australian conditions and conform to national standards. Information in SDSs should be in plain language so that it can be understood and used in workplaces.
SDSs provide information for those handling and using substances in the workplace - and also for the information of any workers who may be exposed to these substances. SDS details are also required by those storing and transporting substances. They should be supplied with the product and stored on site for easy reference.
What are the employer's legal responsibilities?
In Victoria, employers are required:
"...to provide such information, instruction...to employees.. as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health"( Section 21(2)(e) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004)
Further, under Part 4.1 Hazardous Substances of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 ("the Regulations"), the employer:
"...must obtain a current SDS on or before the first supply of a hazardous substance to the employer's workplace."
The employer must also ensure that the SDS is not altered. It is the employer's responsibility to provide the health and safety representative/s access to the SDSs.
In addition, all containers of hazardous materials must be labelled.
The Regulations also require manufacturers and suppliers to supply an SDS of all substances designated as hazardous. SDSs should comply with the Model Work Health Safety Code of Practice Preparation of Safety Data Sheets for Hazardous Chemicals (2018)
What should an SDS look like?
SDSs may differ slightly in organisation, but they must all contain the same basic information on hazardous ingredients, health effects, legal and recommended exposure limits, physical properties, and control methods and comply with the Regulations. SDSs must contain:
- Date of last review (or if not reviewed, then date of preparation)
- name, address and telephone number of the Australian manufacturer of the substance (if imported, then the person who imported the substance)
- an Australian telephone number for use in emergencies
- the product name
- the chemical and physical properties
- the chemical ingredients
- health effects (short and long term)
- first aid information
- the exposure standard
- requirements for safe use and handling and ways of controlling exposure to the substance
- a statement that the substance is "hazardous" according to the Regulations, if applicable.
Often, SDSs will also include information on fire and explosion, spills and disposal and emergency information for firefighters. It is crucial that they be easily accessible.
SDSs must contain complete, accurate, and up-to-date information. Nevertheless, many SDSs may be inaccurate and incomplete. However, they may still be very useful if you know how to read them and where to look for more information.
What to look for:
1 - Hazardous Ingredients/Identity Information
Which Chemicals are covered?
Under the regulations, the SDS must disclose all hazardous substances.A hazardous substance is one that satisfies the criteria for hazard classification set out in Part 3 (Health Hazards) of the GHS (but there are some exceptions - see definitions in the Regulations). There is more information on the Safe Work Australia website (see: Classifying chemicals).
The Hazardous Chemical Information System (HCIS) website provides assistance in finding information on chemicals that have been classified as hazardous under the GHS.
What are the Names of the Chemicals?
Chemicals are often known by different names:
- A trade name, such as "Safety Clean", is the brand name the manufacturer gives the product. It does not tell you, however, what chemicals are in the product, or whether the product is a mixture of chemicals or a single chemical. The same chemical may be used in a variety of products with different trade names. The trade name usually appears on the label and in the first section of the MSDS.
- A generic name describes a family or group of chemicals. For example, there are several different "isocyanates", and thousands of different "chlorinated hydrocarbons". Sometimes an SDS will just list the generic names. However, a generic name can only be used for certain classifications of chemicals. The Victorian Hazardous Substances Regulations have a number of schedules according to which substances must be classified (and which vary from the GHS classification)
- The chemical or specific name is the one that describes the specific chemical. An example is methyl chloroform, one of the thousands of "chlorinated hydrocarbons", or toluene diisocyanate, a member of the "isocyanate" family. The chemical name is the easiest name to use when doing research on the health effects of chemicals and how to protect yourself.
- The CAS Number is a number given by the Chemical Abstract Service to each chemical. While different chemicals may have the same name, they will all have their own CAS number which can be used to look up information. The Chemical Abstract Service publishes a book that contains a list of all CAS Numbers and the chemicals they represent.
Trade Secrets or "Commercially confidential information"
As noted above, the manufacturer may be able to withhold ingredient information from the SDS if any ingredients are considered "commercially confidential" - but this only applies to some substances as listed in Schedule 8 of the Regulations.
2 - Physical and Chemical Characteristics
Physical and chemical characteristics include the chemical's appearance and odour, along with physical properties that indicate how easily a chemical will evaporate and release potentially harmful vapours into the air.
Boiling point: The boiling point of a substance is the temperature at which the liquid boils or becomes a gas. The lower the boiling point, the quicker it evaporates and the easier it is to inhale. Chemicals with boiling points below 100°C (or 212°F) require special caution.
Vapour pressure: A high vapour pressure indicates that a liquid will evaporate easily - or are volatile. This means that air concentrations can build up quickly, even though the substance is in liquid form. Liquids with high vapour pressures may be especially hazardous if you are working with them in a confined space or an enclosed area.
Vapour density: If the vapour density is less than one, it will tend to rise in air. If the vapour density is greater than one, it will fall in air and concentrate in the bottom of tanks or confined spaces.
Appearance and odour: This information may help identify a substance that spills or leaks in your work area. However, many chemicals are hazardous at levels lower than they can be smelled. Also, many chemicals, such as hydrogen sulphide and ammonia, cause "olfactory fatigue", which means that workers rapidly lose their ability to smell the substance.
Specific gravity: If the specific gravity is greater than one, the substance will sink in water; if less than one, it will float on top of water.
Evaporation rate: This is the rate at which a substance evaporates compared to either ether, which evaporates quickly, or butyl acetate, which evaporates slowly. If the substance has an evaporation rate greater than one, it evaporates faster than the comparison substance.
Flash point: This is the lowest temperature at which a liquid gives off enough vapour to form a mixture with air that can be ignited by a spark. Liquids with flash points below 100°F (37°C) are considered flammable, and liquids with flash points between 100°F and 200°F (54°C) are considered to be combustible. Flammable and combustible liquids require special handling and storage precautions.
3 - Health Hazard Data
This section describes the health effects of the substance, including signs and symptoms of exposure and medical conditions made worse by exposure. Acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) effects of exposure must always be included. SDSs often leave out chronic health information, such as whether a chemical causes cancer or birth defects. This section must also contain information on target organs (liver, kidneys or central nervous system), signs or symptoms of exposure, medical conditions generally aggravated by exposure. Routes of entry (inhalation, skin contact, swallowing) and emergency and first aid procedures must also be included.
Unfortunately, a lot of SDSs in circulation do not contain complete and accurate health hazard information.
4 - Exposure Standards
The SDS must also list the exposure standards (the limit allowed in the air when working with the substance) and threshold limit values (TLVs) of ingredients if the substance has these.
5 - Precautions for Use Information
The information should include the following:
The SDS should list control measures that can reduce or eliminate the hazard, including ventilation and other engineering controls, safe work practices.
It should also specify the personal protective equipment required. For respirators, information on the type of respirator, degree of protection and the appropriate filter cartridge (such as acid, gases, dust or organic vapours) must be included. In addition, all gloves do not protect against all chemicals. The correct type of glove should be specified on the SDS.
This gives precautions that must be taken to prevent fire hazards with the substance, including fire fighting recommendations.
Storage and Transport
When stored improperly, some chemicals can react with other chemicals and release dangerous materials. This gives storage and particular transport requirements for the product.
Spill or Leak Procedures
There should be information on proper equipment to use and precautions to follow if a spill or leak occurs. It should also describe safe waste disposal method.
CHECKING THE ACCURACY OF AN SDS
What can be done if you suspect that the MSDS that you received is not accurate or complete?
- Look at the date of the SDS - the Regulations require that an SDS to be reviewed at least every 5 years (more often if required - for example if an ingredient or an exposure standard changes, or more information becomes available)
- Ask your Employer: If an SDS is not accurate, your employer is responsible for obtaining an accurate, complete SDS. Ask your employer to request a more accurate MSDS from the supplier or manufacturer.
- Contact the Manufacturer and ask for a more accurate SDS.
- Check the HCIS
- Contact your union or the VTHC OHS Unit for assistance in checking the accuracy of SDSs.
- Look the substance up on the internet (a good start is the website of The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry or other sites on this page)
There is a lot of guidance material on SDS - see for example:
- WorkSafe Victoria advice on Safety Data Sheets;
- A webpage on the Safe Work Australia, and a document: Understanding Safety Data Sheets
Last updated, February 2019