The Great MSDS Hoax

Unless they offer specific and comprehensive information, material safety data sheets (MSDSs) run the risk of being useless.

In theory, MSDSs provide users with information regarding hazardous substances and recommended safety precautions. While the concept behind these documents is good, my experience suggests that the information often is too vague or limited, making MSDSs amount to nothing more than a tragic hoax.

I have had the opportunity to examine hundreds of safety data sheets. Except for the lists of ingredients, I have found much of the information utterly useless. For example, many recommend using simply “chemical-resistant” gloves to prevent a substance from coming into contact with the skin. Without specific information about appropriate glove types, however, the user remains in the dark. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to specify the glove material required to protect against the particular chemical – for example, recommending gloves made of nitrile or polyvinyl alcohol? This way, the user understands exactly which gloves he or she needs, and can avoid the potentially dangerous scenario of reaching for a pair of rubber or latex gloves, which might dissolve on contact with the chemical.

Vague advice without direct, clear instruction for particular situations seems to be a common problem for MSDSs. For example, one of my favorite MSDS suggestions for disposal is to dispose of “in accordance with all local, state and federal regulations.” Recommendations don’t get more useless than that.

Another common MSDS tactic is to simply recommend that users wear proper respiratory protection. Respirators, however, should only be worn if exposure to air contaminants cannot be eliminated by engineering controls such as ventilation. If a respirator is required, the necessary type is dictated by the contaminant concentration. As a certified industrial hygienist, I am able to use the list of ingredients to select appropriate chemical-resistant clothing and identify appropriate air sampling methods to quantify exposure, but many other users can’t. Instead, they rely on the MSDS to tell them what to do – and too often, the advice they get is useless.

In my opinion, one of the most glaring (yet easily correctable) faults of MSDSs is the failure to warn of the explosion hazard posed by combustible dusts. In a report issued last November concerning dust explosions throughout the country, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board pointed out that MSDSs for combustible materials such as plastics, chemicals and other dust-producing products did not contain a warning that suspensions and accumulations of combustible dusts could lead to catastrophic explosions. Now, wouldn’t that be something good to know?

Based on OSHA’s reluctance to issue a comprehensive combustible dust standard in the wake of the CSB’S recommendation to do so, I don’t think we can rely on regulatory agencies like OSHA to force preparers of MSDSs to develop a more user-friendly product. Instead, I think we need a grassroots effort from the professional safety community to demand more useful MSDSs that will put an end to the ongoing hoax.

John Rekus may be reached at [email protected].

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