All you need to know for reading And Understanding Safety Data Sheets (SDS)

Safety Data Sheets (SDS’) are documents providing relevant hazard, safety, emergency, disposal and transport information for dangerous/hazardous chemical substances or mixtures. SDS’ are primarily used at the workplace but can sometimes be useful to the consumers, such as the case example with the household chemicals like detergents. Formerly these documents were known as Material Safety Data Sheets or MSDS. The term MSDS is now rarely used.

As mentioned, the SDS’ are mandatory for hazardous substances and mixtures and need to be revised when new information is available about these chemicals or if there is a change in the composition, or a recent regulatory change is introduced. SDS’ are optional for non-hazardous substances or mixtures, but many chemical producers are compiling them regardless of whether the chemical is classified as hazardous or not.

The primary purpose of the SDS is to minimise the risk when handling the chemicals. They describe potential hazards and risks but also advise about the safety precautions.

Every employee involved in handling, using or storing a hazardous chemical needs access to the relevant SDS for the said chemical. Because SDS contains useful information for emergency personnel, it should also be available to them at any time. 

Today, mostly, safety data sheets include the information specified in Globally Harmonized System (GHS), which divides all hazards into three main hazard types: 

  1. Physical hazards 
  2. Health hazards
  3. Environmental hazards

Physical hazards are based on the intrinsic properties of the chemical. There are five main classes of physical hazard, namely Explosive, Flammable, Oxidising, Gases under Pressure and Corrosive to metals which are then sub-divided into different categories depending on the degree of danger.

Health hazards are hazards arising from chemicals, which can potentially cause harm to human health. There are four main classes of health hazards, namely corrosive, toxic, harmful and irritant. Similarly to physical hazards, health hazard classes are also sub-divided into different categories depending on the degree of danger.

Environmental hazards are hazards that can potentially cause harm to the living organisms in the environment. The GHS definition of an environmental hazard consists of hazardous substances to either the aquatic environment or to the ozone layer. Aquatic environmental hazards are divided into acute and chronic classes and sub-divided into different categories depending on the degree of danger.

Every hazard is assigned specific hazard statements to identity them. According to the GHS, every SDS must include 16 sections, which the said regulation also specifies contents. 

Standard SDS made according to GHS rules should consist of the following 16 sections:

SECTION 1: Identification of the substance/mixture and of the company/undertaking

SECTION 2: Hazards identification

SECTION 3: Composition/information on ingredients

SECTION 4: First aid measures

SECTION 5: Firefighting measures

SECTION 6: Accidental release measure

SECTION 7: Handling and storage

SECTION 8: Exposure controls/personal protection

SECTION 9: Physical and chemical properties

SECTION 10: Stability and reactivity

SECTION 11: Toxicological information

SECTION 12: Ecological information

SECTION 13: Disposal considerations

SECTION 14: Transport information

SECTION 15: Regulatory information

SECTION 16: Other information

This article will explain what is required in each specific section of a safety data sheet.

 SECTION 1: Identification of the substance/mixture and the company/undertaking

Section 1 of the SDS provides information on identifying the substance or mixture and the company that supply the chemical. It usually includes information about:

  • Commonly used names to describe the chemical product (e.g. trade name, substance name, substance identifiers like CAS no, etc.)
  • Recommended uses and restrictions on use
  • Supplier information (supplier name, address, phone contact, e-mail, etc.) and
  • Emergency phone numbers (usually also includes poison control centre phone).

Section 1 should tell the reader what the chemical is, how it should and should not be used, and contact the manufacturer or supplier.

SECTION 2: Hazards identification

This SDS section provides information about the hazards and risks associated with the chemical product. Required information includes hazard classification and hazard statements (also known as H-statements or H-codes), precautionary statements (also known as P-statements or P-codes), signal words (Warning or Danger on None) and GHS hazard pictograms. Pictograms highlight the hazards described by hazard classification and hazard statements; pictograms should help the users identify the hazard at first glance. As mentioned above, all hazards and pictograms fall into three main groups, physical, health and environmental hazards. There are nine hazard pictograms in total. Depending on the local regulation, some additional information needs to be disclosed in section 2, for example, substances that can cause allergic reactions or are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction, etc.

SECTION 3: Composition/information on ingredients

In the third SDS section, information about the composition and the ingredients should be presented. Usually, only hazardous ingredients need to be disclosed here, including the hazardous impurities or additives above the threshold concentrations given by the national regulations. Also, non-hazardous substances with known occupational exposure limit (OEL) values should be disclosed.

SDS Section 3 requires chemical name, Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) number, and other unique attributes for all substances. For example, in the EU, section 3 also requires information about the hazard classification of the ingredients and other chemical identifiers such as European Community (EC) number, REACH registration number, and Index number. M-factors or specific concentration limits that determine the substance’s hazard in mixtures should also be indicated.

Depending on the local regulation, sometimes only generic names can be used if the chemical ingredients are commercially confidential (a trade secret) or if the chemical ingredient does not have a set exposure standard. 

To preserve the trade secrets and exact recipes, percentage ranges can be used on safety data sheets for mixtures instead of exact concentrations. An example would be:

Component A given concentration is <10%

Component B concentration is 10-30%

In the US, if exact percentages are withheld due to a trade secret claim, a statement about the trade secret is required in Section 3.

SECTION 4: First aid measures

As the name suggests, section 4 of the SDS describes the first aid measures. It provides information on both symptoms and effects (acute and delayed) that can occur after the victim is exposed to the chemical product. First-aid instructions should be described for exposure via inhalation, skin or eye contact and ingestion, as well as recommendations for medical care or special treatment when required. A few examples mentioned in section 4 could be:

If in eyes, rinse for several minutes under running water. If symptoms occur, get medical attention.

Seek medical attention if rash or irritation occurs. 

If swallowed, do not induce vomiting. Never give anything to an unconscious person.

SECTION 5: Firefighting measures

This section includes what to do in case of fire caused by or involving the chemical product. Information includes suitable and unsuitable extinguishing media and equipment, special equipment or precautions for firefighters. It also details advice on specific hazards that develop or arise from the chemical product during the fire.

SECTION 6: Accidental release measure

Section 6 of the SDS, contains information should measures and procedures that should be followed in case of spillage, leaks or other accidental releases. The information usually includes emergency procedures, environmental precautions, protective equipment to be used in the case of an accident and appropriate clean-up and containment methods.

SECTION 7: Handling and storage

Section 7 on the SDS should provide a general guideline for safe handling and storage for the said chemical product. It should also offer guidelines on general hygiene and conditions for safe storage, specific storage requirements, and storage incompatibilities. This information should help the user minimise the risks, exposure and release into the environment. Examples of the phrases used in this section are:

Use product only in a well-ventilated area.

Wash hands thoroughly after handling the product.

Keep away from any sources of ignition, heat and sparks.

SECTION 8: Exposure controls/personal protection

The information from section 8 should help the user avoid personal exposure to chemicals in quantities or more prolonged than can be done safely. It provides information on the maximum permissible exposure levels and minimises the risk of exceeding them. This includes giving out the information on the protective measures that should be used to safely handle the chemical, such as the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), engineering controls (i.e. usage of exhaust ventilation) and any other exposure control measures which could help reduce the exposure of the personnel handling the chemical product.

The required PPE is usually listed together with the information on the material, resistance and standards by which the PPE is tested.

The SDS local, national, federal and/or regional Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) values should be given for the constituent substances. In the EU, national and EU exposure limit values should be listed, while in the US.

  • OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs),
  • American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH),
  • Threshold Limit Values (TLVs),
  • Any other limits recommended for safety (such as recommended exposure limits from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)),

should be given.

SECTION 9: Physical and chemical properties

In section 9, the physical and chemical properties of the chemical product should be listed. Depending on the local legislation and which GHS version and requirements are implemented, the list of properties mentioned differs. Usually, it should include information about physical and chemical such as:

  • Appearance (physical state, colour, etc.)
  • Auto-ignition temperature
  • Decomposition temperature
  • Evaporation rate
  • Flammability (solid, gas)
  • Flashpoint
  • Initial boiling point and boiling point range
  • Melting point/freezing point
  • Odour
  • Odour threshold
  • Partition coefficient: n-octanol/water
  • pH
  • Relative density
  • Solubility in water
  • Solubility/Solubilities
  • Upper/lower flammability or explosive limits
  • Vapour density
  • Vapour pressure
  • Viscosity

SECTION 10: Stability and reactivity

A lot of information in this section is connected and shared knowledge from section 7. Here is information about how stable or reactive chemicals should be given. For chemical stability, information on whether the chemical is stable or unstable under normal conditions of use and/or storage should be mentioned together with the conditions which should be avoided (i.e. elevated temperature) and if there are any incompatible materials (i.e. strong acids should not be stored together with the alkalis). Besides this, information about any possible hazardous reactions or any known hazardous decomposition products which could occur during the use or storage of the chemical should be given.

SECTION 11: Toxicological information

This section of the SDS describes the symptoms and harmful effects of the chemical product or its constituent substances on the human body after exposure. It should in great detail explain the health risks associated with poisoning from the chemical via each possible route of exposure (eyes, skin, inhalation and ingestion). Related symptoms, acute and chronic health effects, toxicity dosage descriptors (LD, EC, IC, etc.) from relevant studies and information on whether or not the chemical is considered carcinogenic, mutagenic or reproductively toxic should be given.

SECTION 12: Ecological information

Section 12 of the SDS information about the ecotoxicity and environmental hazards is explained and expanded upon. It contains information helpful for evaluating the environmental impact if the chemical product is released into the environment. The information in this section relates to:

  • ecotoxicity,
  • persistence and (bio)degradability,
  • bioaccumulative potential,
  • mobility in soil, and
  • other adverse effects,

of the chemical product and its constituent substances.

If the information about these topics is missing or not available, it should be clearly stated.

SECTION 13: Disposal considerations

This SDS section will find information and recommendations on safely disposing of, recycling, or reclaiming the chemical and its packaging. Usually, disposal measures for the product and the packaging are given separately. The recommendation may include information on the most effective disposal methods, physical and chemical properties that may affect disposal, and any special precautions for landfills or incineration. Sewage disposal is almost always unanimously discouraged.

SECTION 14: Transport information

Since a separate UN model regulation covers the transportation of dangerous goods, there was a need to connect that information with the SDS. Section 14 provides essential information for shipping and transporting hazardous chemicals by road, air, rail or sea. Transport information should include: 

  • UN number and shipping name, 
  • transport hazard classes,
  •  packing group number, 
  • environmental hazard, 
  • bulk transport guidance and special precautions associated with transport.

SECTION 15: Regulatory information

As the name suggests, section 15 includes any safety, health, and environmental regulations relevant to the SDS’s preparation and content. It should mention both national and regional regulatory information. Usually mentioned regulations are local chemical management framework regulations, OEL regulations and industry-specific regulations, for example, Biocide Product Regulation (BPR) in Europe in case that the product is used as a biocide.

SECTION 16: Other information

The final section of the SDS includes information about the SDS preparation date, last known revision date and the version history, in which sections the changes were made in the most recent version. It also usually contains a list of abbreviations and an explanation of which classification method was used to classify mixtures. It also has other helpful information not included anywhere else in the SDS. 

It is important to note that the GHS presents a basis for harmonisation of rules and regulations of the SDS’ at the international level. Still, when implementing and transposing the GHS into their national legislation, countries can adopt one of many (currently 9) different GHS revisions and can. They can adopt only parts of the GHS in their national legislation. Because of this, when creating or using SDS’, only following GHS is not enough; local legislation also needs to be checked.

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