This blog is all about Safety Data Sheets (SDSs): exactly what they are, how to use them, and the best way to store them on the job site. An SDS contains essential information about the chemical properties of a substance and information about how it could affect:

  • The health and safety of your workers or visiting personnel (heath hazards, toxicology)

  • The security of buildings and property (explosion risks, flammability)

  • The environment (toxicology to aquatic life, emissions)

You’ll need a Safety Data Sheet for every chemical you hold onsite so you can manage the risks they present to your workplace as well as implement any known control measures, emergency procedures and disposal considerations. The SDS will outline how to store the chemicals and the type of PPE you need to provide to your staff.

NOTE: Safety Data Sheets were once known as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and are standardised under the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS).

Globally harmonized chemical safety information

Safety Data Sheets are part of the GHS, or Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). The GHS was adopted into Australian legislation and Standards in early in 2017 and sets an international standard for chemical testing, hazards, labeling, and signage. So even though an SDS is prepared for chemical use, storage and handling within Australia, the document uses internationally understood symbols, precautionary actions, and hazard statements.  

Each SDS must be prepared by the manufacturer, supplier, or importer. Even if these parties are overseas they still need to provide an SDS that meets all the requirements of Australian Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations. Most especially there will be specific information for the using the chemical in Australia.

IMPORTANT: Do not accept delivery of a chemical with an incorrect, out-of-date, or generic SDS.

Accessing information and chemical hazards from an SDS

Safety Data Sheets follow a consistent format and set out the information about the chemical in 16 sections as follows:

  1. Product identification - states the product name and any other identifiers (eg, Liquid Chlorine); the key uses of the chemical (eg, Water treatment: Sanitising agent) or restrictions; name and contact details of the supplier; emergency phone number (eg, poisons information hotline).

  2. Hazards -  GHS hazard class and labeling information (eg, GHS05 corrosion, H314 Causes severe skin burns and eye damage) and other hazards (eg, Toluene is classified as Dangerous Goods according to the Australian Code for the Transport of Dangerous Goods by Road and Rail).

  3. Ingredients - composition/chemical mixture with percentages (Toluene >99%).

  4. First aid measures - what to do if the substance is inhaled, ingested, contacts the skin, or eyes (eg, if inhaled, remove to fresh air); first aid equipment to be installed (eg, safety showers, eye wash stations and First Aid kits), advice for doctors (eg, treat symptomatically and as for a narcotic substance).

  5. Firefighting measures - how to put out a fire involving the chemical (eg, water fog or if unavailable fine water spray);  additional hazards caused by the chemical’s response to heat or combustion (eg, burning can produce carbon monoxide and/or carbon dioxide); advice to fire fighters (eg, wear Safe Work Australia approved self-contained breathing apparatus and full protective clothing).

  6. Accidental release measures - emergency procedures and PPE to use if the chemical is accidentally released or spilled (eg, evacuate all non-essential personnel from affected area); actions to take to protect the environment (eg, prevent spillage from entering drains or water courses); how to contain a spill and clean it up (eg, absorb spill with sand, earth, vermiculite or some other absorbent material).

  7. Handling and storage - safe handling methods and precautions (eg, use in well ventilated areas away from all ignition sources); storage requirements (eg, containers should be stored in the vertical position and properly secured to prevent them from falling over); incompatible substances (eg, segregate from oxidant gases and other oxidants in store).

  8. Exposure controls and PPE - known control measures (usually engineering controls) to assist in safe handling and storage (eg, provide exhaust ventilation); if the chemical has a workplace exposure standard it will be listed here (eg, TWA: 2* mg/m3 *Peak limitation); recommended personal protective equipment (eg, safety glasses with top and side shields or goggles).

  9. Physical and chemical properties - information about what the chemical actually looks and  smells like (eg, mobile clear colourless liquid); other chemical properties (eg, solubility, flashpoint, boiling point, melting point).

  10. Stability and reactivity - any chemical reactions that could occur (eg, slowly decomposes on contact with air); conditions to avoid (eg, direct sunlight); incompatible substances (eg, ammonia - chloramine gas may evolve); decomposition situations (eg, decomposes on heating emitting toxic chlorine fumes)

  11. Toxicity - toxicological data (eg, LD50/oral/rat: 50>2000 mg/kg); acute and chronic health effects (eg, ingestion of larger amounts may cause narcotic effects, and lead to coma and death).

  12. Environmental impacts - ecological data and an indication on any negative impacts the chemical could have on the environment (eg, very toxic to aquatic organisms); persistence and degradability (eg, readily biodegradable); mobility (eg, highly mobile, floats on water).

  13. Waste and disposal considerations - any specific disposal methods or waste treatment (eg empty containers must be decontaminated by rinsing with water).

  14. Transportation - this is the official identifying data that must accompany the chemical if it is being transported (eg, UN number, UN shipping name, ADG classes, quantity limits)

  15. Regulatory information - other regulatory information (eg, class under the poisons schedule).

  16. Other information - relevant Australian Safety Standards, Codes of Practice (eg, AS 1020 The Control of Undesirable Static Electricity; date the SDS was prepared or last updated.

IMPORTANT: By law an SDS must be updated at least once every 5 years and amended whenever the properties/ingredient mix of the chemical changes (eg, alters toxicology) or new scientific information about its chemical hazards is released. You have an obligation to ensure you always have the most up-to-date version of the SDS in your Register and make it accessible to your workers.

Keeping SDSs at the worksite

Safety Data Sheets can be kept at the worksite either electronically or in hard copy. Many workplaces keep both formats because every workplace needs a Register of Hazardous Chemicals (a list of all the substances onsite plus their corresponding SDS) to provide safety information to workers actually exposed to the chemical hazards.

The Register and the SDSs are most often used in response to a chemical emergency or first aid situation — so the documents need to be kept close to work or storage areas. A document holder attached to your chemical safety cabinets, eye wash station, or operating plant is often the most practical method as this document box (or tube) protects the hard copy paper sheets from dust, vermin, rain and chemical damage. It can be clearly labeled and quickly located in an emergency.

REMEMBER: Electronic copies of an SDS may sound convenient but do you have enough shared workstations so ALL affected workers can access them easily in the event of a chemical emergency? Your Register of Hazardous Chemicals will not comply with safety regulations if it is stored on a manager’s computer that is password protected or locked away in an office.

Next Steps

Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) are important tools for minimising the risks surrounding hazardous chemicals, but are still only a summary of the chemical properties and hazards. They may not state all the requirements under Australian Standards, Codes of Practice, or WHS legislation. For more detailed  information about identifying chemical hazards and using the contents of an SDS to keep your workplace safe and compliant, we recommend downloading our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. It’s an excellent resource for WHS Managers or departmental supervisors with WHS responsibilities. Read it today and get your work place 100% compliant with safety legislation and standards.

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