Identifying chemical health hazards from Safety Data Sheets (SDSs)

Jul 9, 2020 Posted by Walter Ingles

Safety Data Sheets are an essential part of managing the risks created by hazardous chemicals. Apart from being legally required onsite (in work and storage areas where chemicals are kept), SDSs are key to identifying and understanding the way chemicals could impact the health of your workers or other site personnel. This blog is a step-by-step approach to using an SDS as the basis for identifying chemical health hazards and assessing the exposure levels that could cause injuries, death, or long term illness.

NOTE: This blog is about identifying the acute and chronic health conditions (eg, poisoning, asthma, cancer, acid burns, liver damage) that could affect your workers when exposed to hazardous chemicals. This blog does NOT deal with physical hazards like fires, explosions, and chemical reactions.

STEP 1: ‘Routes of Exposure’

Hazardous chemicals create illness, injuries and disease by penetrating the human body. These routes of exposure depend on the form of substance (gas, liquid, solid) and your Safety Data Sheets will generally list the following four in Section 4: First Aid and Section 11: Toxicology.

  1. Inhalation - breathing in chemical vapours, fumes, mists, dusts, and other gases.

  2. Skin - chemicals contacting the skin through spills, splashes, or falling into a tank.

  3. Eyes - getting chemicals in the eyes.

  4. Ingestion - swallowing an unknown substance by mistake or ingesting spilled/released chemicals that have settled on hands, beards, cigarettes, cups, food.

Once chemicals are in the body they can quickly get into the bloodstream and penetrate major organs (liver, lungs, kidneys) and cause damage to the nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems. Once you know how the chemicals can get into the body and cause damage you can begin identifying the possible health effects.

REMEMBER: Chemicals can change forms and create additional hazards that may not be fully covered in the Safety Data Sheet. For example an SDS for diesel fuel will list the health effects from inhaling vapours and fumes, but may have very little data about exposure to diesel exhaust and other emissions.

STEP 2: Possible health effects

Safety Data Sheets list chemical health effects in several places (check the section on hazards and toxicology). For each chemical we suggest compiling the information from the SDS into a table or chart containing the chemical names, exposure routes and possible health effects. Something like this: 

Chemical Exposure Route Health Effect



Poisons Schedule 5: Caution


Breathing in mists or aerosols may produce respiratory irritation. Delayed (up to 48 hours). Fluid build up in the lungs may occur.



Causes eye damage. A severe eye irritant. Corrosive to eyes; contact can cause corneal burns. Contamination of eyes can result in permanent injury.



Causes severe skin burns.



Swallowing can result in nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and chemical burns to the gastrointestinal tract.


NOTE: Check Section 15: Regulatory Information to see if the substance is classified as a poison in the Poisons Standard. You might contact the supplier or poisons information centre to get a greater understanding of the toxicity of the substance.

STEP 3: Level of exposure

In our generic example from Step 2, we’ve stated that workers exposed to chlorine can suffer chemical burns, have their eyesight permanently damaged, and suffer fluid build up in the lungs. But to make this information relevant to the health and safety of workers in your actual workplace you’ll look at the ways your workers use or are potentially exposed to the chemicals. Health effects will be impacted by the:

Duration: (the period of time a worker is exposed to the chemical). The longer the exposure the greater the danger eg, a full-time commercial cleaner using chlorine bleach 40 hours per week vs a warehouse employee cleaning the floor of the storeroom with chlorine bleach once a month for an hour.

Dose: (how much of the chemical is being used). This will be a combination of the volume of chemical being used, the dilution/purity, and the work area. Eg, a commercial cleaner using a heavily diluted chlorine bleach for 40 hours per week cleaning concrete tiles outdoors, may be in less danger than the warehouse employee (cleaning for one hour) using a strong mix of bleach in a small room without ventilation.

Reactions and interactions: (incompatible substances present in the work areas) some chemicals are incompatible with other substances and are capable of creating dangerous chemical reactions or other toxic chemicals. Eg, chlorine bleach and ammonia used together can produce an extremely toxic chemical, you may need to introduce safe operating procedures that ensure cleaning staff don’t mix these two chemicals.  Always check Section 10: Stability and Reactivity of the Safety Data Sheet for details of incompatible materials and conditions to avoid.

Workplace Exposure Standards

Safe Work Australia have set official Workplace Exposure Standards for more than 700 hazardous chemicals used in Australian workplaces. The standards define the acceptable airborne concentration levels and can be found in Section 8: Exposure Controls and Personal Protection of the Safety Data Sheets. Eg, work areas for commercial cleaners using chlorine bleach must never exceed 3mg/m3. To achieve this you may need to introduce engineering controls (like a mechanical ventilation system) or work procedures (diluting the concentration of chlorine) to keep the work areas within exposure standards.

REMEMBER: Chemicals can affect people differently depending on their genetic makeup, allergies, age, BMI, alcohol consumption, and previous exposure to toxic chemicals.

Next Steps

Your list of chemical health hazards is just one step in the risk assessment process. For a holistic look at chemical risk management — including how to use a compliant risk management methodology — we recommend downloading our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. Download and read it today to get your workplace 100% chemical safety compliant.

How to manage the risk of hazardous chemicals in the workplace

Walter Ingles

Walter Ingles Compliance Specialist

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Storage Specialist. He helps organisations reduce risk and improve efficiencies in the storage and management of dangerous goods and hazardous chemicals.

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