Why you need Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) at your job site

Jul 9, 2020 Posted by Walter Ingles

If you carry any hazardous chemicals at your job site you will need to obtain a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) from the manufacturer, importer, or supplier of the chemical. An SDS is a type of chemical ‘spec sheet’ which details the chemical’s properties, ingredients (if a mix), toxicity, hazards, and what to do in an emergency situation if it involves exposure to the chemical. This blog outlines 3 essential functions of an SDS to help you understand the importance (and legalities) of holding these important documents.

1. Understanding chemical risks and hazards

Safety Data Sheets are an important tool for understanding chemical hazards at the worksite and how they could affect your workers, your property, and the environment. Each Safety Data Sheet  begins with a hazard information section that explains the chemical’s physical and health hazards using internationally accepted symbols and codes. These include:

  • Signal words which indicate the severity of the hazard (DANGER or WARNING)
  • Hazard statements which identify the GHS* hazard class
  • ADG Code hazard identifiers
  • Precautionary statements which outline how to avoid exposure through safe work practices, PPE, and proper storage.

*GHS = Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals

**ADG Code = Australian Dangerous Goods Code of Practice

2. Creating a Register of Hazardous Chemicals

When you carry hazardous substances onsite, Australian WHS Regulations require you to create an official called a Register of Hazardous Chemicals. This Register is a list of chemical names plus the current SDS for each of the substances. It must be kept in work areas, chemical stores, decanting stations, and other places where workers could be exposed to the chemicals (and their hazards).

Many work supervisors and line managers mistakenly think that the Register of Hazardous Chemicals is merely a recording keeping tool. It isn’t. The primary purpose of the Register is so workers and other personnel who are actually using the chemicals (or immediately exposed to their hazards) have easy access to hazard details, safe use and storage, first aid treatment, poisons information, and emergency responses.  

The SDSs are the focus of the Register and they may be kept onsite in hardcopy or as electronic files. We’ve created a comparative table below to help you use the SDSs to create a compliant Register.

  Unacceptable Acceptable
Stored electronically
  • On a password protected computer and only a few supervisors and key staff know how to access the files.
  • Stored in electronic format but the file is unable to be opened because there is no compatible software.
  • All employees have access to the computer and and know how to access the SDSs (including as any relevant passwords).
  • In a common format (eg, PDF, Word) and the computer has up-to-date reader software enabling the electronic SDS to be opened.


  • Kept in a locked cabinet inside a manager's office.
  • Faded copy originally printed on an inkjet printer. Parts of the SDS are hard to read.
  • Kept in a well-marked document box attached to the chemical store or lube station.
  • Clear, laser printed copies that have been laminated or placed in a plastic sleeve.

3. Providing emergency information

Information on Safety Data Sheets goes beyond the summary printed on a chemical label and presents more detailed toxicology, first aid, and emergency response information. SDSs are a fundamental part of emergency planning and creating a staff training program, but they are also used by workers and staff when actually responding to a chemical exposure accident and require first aid information. We’ll take a look at the two different uses below.

Emergency planning

An SDS will outline if a chemical is also a physical hazard (ie, can burn or cause a fire, explode, or is reactive).

  • Fires - if a chemical is capable of burning or causing a fire, this will need to be factored into your emergency plan. From the SDS you’ll be able to identify whether the substance is flammable, combustible, or an oxidser — plus the conditions (or ignition sources) which will lead to a fire. The chemical’s flashpoint and explosive range are also be listed as well as the type of fire fighting equipment you’ll need to extinguish a fire.
  • Explosions - the SDS will identify unstable materials like nitroglycerine and TNT that are themselves explosive, as well as compressed gases in cylinders that can explode after rupturing or overheating.
  • Dangerous reactions - an SDS will outline any conditions or other substances that could trigger a dangerous chemical reaction. Some chemicals heat, decompose and even explode when in contact with water or sunlight, while others create poisonous gases.
  • Environmental impacts - each SDS has a dedicated section of ecological data which details how the chemical could impact the environment: including the soil, waterways, aquatic life and terrestrial organisms. There are also sections detailing how to respond to an accidental spill, leak or chemical release as well as safe disposal procedures.
  • PPE and emergency equipment - the SDS will detail the PPE required by staff and emergency crews as well as other emergency equipment like eye wash stations, safety showers, spill kits and plunge baths.

Chemical exposure accidents and first aid

Each Safety Data Sheet gives a full description of a chemical’s toxicology and health hazards. This is detailed in a number of sections including:

  • Toxicology - the toxicology section of the SDS  lists any acute or chronic health effects that could be caused by the chemical. Learn the different ways it could enter the body (absorbed the skin or eyes, inhaled, or ingested) and whether the chemical could cause burns, vomiting, cancer, or death.
  • First aid information and treatment - an SDS will have a set of precautionary statements and first aid treatment measures. These are itemised by route of exposure (skin, eyes, swallowed, inhaled), first aid treatment, how to contact poisons information services, plus information for the treating doctor. It will detail any PPE or precautions to be taken by first aiders.

Next Steps

Now you understand more about the essentials of Safety Data Sheets, why not download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. You’ll learn exactly how to carry out a full hazard identification audit at your own worksite and use Safety Data Sheets as the basis. Download and read it today.

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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