What's the problem with MSDS?

How Material Safety Data Sheets Fall Short on Safety

When confronted with a toxic substance on the job, many workers rely on the “Material Safety Data Sheet” (MSDS) to inform them of the substance’s hazards. However, many MSDSs have inaccurate or missing information, leaving workers uninformed and at risk.

Almost 20,000 workers reported injury or illness due to “exposure to caustic, noxious, or allergenic substances” that required time away from work in 2010, while 140 workers died from such exposures. Countless others will suffer the effects of long-term toxic chemical exposures including “heart ailments… kidney and lung damage, sterility, [and] cancer.” With an estimated 650,000 chemical products on the market – and hundreds of new ones being introduced annually – about 32 million workers confront potentially dangerous chemical exposure in the workplace.

Background: What is an MSDS?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Hazard Communication Standard requires chemical manufacturers and distributors to provide Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for every hazardous chemical to users to “communicate information on these hazards.” MSDSs include general information about the chemical, identification, hazards, composition, first-aid measures, firefighting measures, accidental release measures, handling and storage, permissible exposure limits and thresholds, personal protective equipment, physical and chemical properties, stability and reactivity, and toxicology information.

In 2012, OSHA revised its Hazard Communication Standard to adopt the Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labeling (GHS) – an international system used in many countries for determining the hazards of chemicals and to warn users of chemicals about those hazards through labels and data sheets. MSDSs will be replaced by Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) which have a consistent format and may include internationally recognized hazard symbols. This transition will be completed in stages and will be finished by June 2016.

MSDS often contain inaccurate or missing information.

According to a 2008 study, between 30 to 100% of products analyzed contained chemicals not declared on an MSDS. “Accuracy and completeness were found to be relatively poor, with the majority of studies presenting evidence that the MSDSs under review did not contain information on all the chemicals present, including those known to be serious sensitizers or carcinogens.” Some ingredients, such as those in fragrances, are exempt under patent laws regardless of toxicity. Furthermore, chemicals were also found at higher concentrations than what the MSDS listed. In 2011, violations of OSHA’s hazard communication standard were the third most frequently cited OSHA violation.

Penalties for inaccurate or missing information on an MSDS are too low.

Maximum fines are no more than $30,000, “and actual fines would probably be significantly smaller.” For example, a Florida distributor of a hair straightening product was fined only $12,600 for “failing to ensure that material safety data sheets reflected the content of formaldehyde in [its] products or the hazards associated with formaldehyde exposure.” OSHA categorized this violation as serious, meaning “there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result.” Problematically, “these fines are too small to incentive companies to more accurately disclose toxic ingredients.”

MSDS are only required to be in English.

MSDSs are “difficult for workers with limited English proficiency to understand,” and there is no requirement to provide non-English speakers with information in their native language. However, employers “may maintain copies in other languages.”

Replacing MSDSs with GHS SDSs will improve worker safety around the world.

The GHS “provides such a standardized approach, including detailed criteria for determining what hazardous effects a chemical poses, as well as standardized label elements assigned by hazard class and category… this will enhance both employer and worker comprehension of the hazards, which will help to ensure appropriate handling and safe use of workplace chemicals.” Further, “adoption of the GHS in the US and around the world will also help to improve information received from other countries—since the US is both a major importer and exporter of chemicals, American workers often see labels and safety data sheets from other countries.”