New Approaches in MSDS Management

Aug. 1, 2010
From its inception to present day, the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) has evolved, mostly for convenience, into a document that provides data in greater detail than the standard requires.

The creation and maintenance of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) was mandated by OSHA via the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) on Nov. 23, 1983, and amended on Sept. 23, 1987, to include all employers with employees exposed to hazardous chemicals in their workplaces. The HCS requires the evaluation of chemical hazards and provides product and/or substance level hazard information to employers and employees.

Some MSDS also offer a significantly broader spectrum of safety information and regulatory data than required by OSHA regulations. The document, in some instances, extends beyond hazardous chemicals to the broader category of regulated materials. As a result, many MSDSs serve as a data clearinghouse for a range of safety and regulatory compliance data to include chemical classification, transportation, environmental, ecological and disposal considerations.


In addition to adhering to international, federal, state and local regulations, compliance today includes two progressive approaches that are being broadly accepted and implemented: corporate social responsibility (CSR) and industry best practices.

CSR has become a business imperative and is a form of self-regulation incorporated into the corporate business model. By implementating a CSR program, a company assumes responsibility for the impact of all corporate activities upon its employees, customers, community and the environment. This often is carried out in the context of voluntary improvement commitments and performance reporting. A wide range of blue chip companies have a stated public commitment to CSR and regularly report (publicly available) on CSR performance.

Emphasis on social environmental and economic sustainability has become a focus of many CSR efforts. The World Commission on Environment and Development, convened by the United Nations (UN) in 1983, redefined sustainability. Companies now are challenged by customers, employees, investors and activists to develop a blueprint for how their organization will sustain economic prosperity while taking care of their employees and the environment.

Industry best practices are designed to leverage integrated compliance management solutions that — through experience, comparative research, analysis, and process assessment — have been proven to reliably lead to a desired result. That result generally leads to one or more of the following improvements: consistency of practice, process control, cost control, record management and content management.

A commitment to deploying best practices is a commitment to using all the knowledge, technology and expertise at one's disposal to ensure safety and compliance. As the regulatory landscape evolves, best practices must be aligned with new and pending requirements to maintain compliance in a rapidly changing environment.

One widely applicable example would be how the role and content of the MSDS has evolved. More changes are in store, as OSHA has released its proposed rule to modify the current HCS to conform to the UN Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). The proposed GHS-specific revisions include both philosophical and tactical changes to hazard communications, which have far-reaching implications for MSDS authoring, publishing, distribution and management of labels. Downstream users of hazardous materials will face a significant employee training/re-training requirement, as new classification terminology, risk and safety determinations, hazard symbols and product labels will be subject to change. Increasing the difficulty will be an estimated 3-year transition period in which either the older MSDS versions (non-GHS compliant) and newer GHS compliant versions will be acceptable for use.

The proposed OSHA GHS rule calls for an updated and expanded version of the MSDS, with new information on:

  • Firefighting measures
  • Accidental release measures
  • Handling and storage
  • Exposure controls/personal protection
  • Stability and reactivity
  • Toxicological information
  • Ecological information
  • Disposal considerations
  • Transport information
  • Regulatory information.


A comprehensive review and outline of current compliance programs and processes, as well as pending corporate initiatives, is the starting point in defining your situation. This information can be gleaned from a variety of sources, including from chemical inventory and MSDS management processes and tools; MSDS obtainment and renewal; access to data and documents, including from the employee level and from the EHS professional level; access to substance level data, regulatory content and transportation data; regulatory impact and analysis processes, including import/export; chemical approval processes; and resource capabilities and requirements.

To simplify the collection, extraction, integration and management of this data, many organizations proactively have linked their MSDS management system to a broader environmental management information system (EMIS) that can be leveraged across the supply chain.

MSDS management, once a tedious, unilateral exercise in pushing paper, fast is becoming an integral part of an EMIS that impacts a broad range of EHS professionals to include safety management, industrial hygiene, product stewardship, R&D, environmental compliance, transportation and risk management.


When developing your chemical inventory management program, you should consider a variety of factors, including the number of sites; your inventory of hazardous materials (including pure chemicals, raw materials, intermediates, used chemicals and finished products); applicable agency requirements (such as workplace safety, environmental and community safety, transportation and waste management); any required global multilingual capabilities; and internal stakeholder process and data requirements.

  1. Define a rating system (or checklist) that enumerates critical capabilities and itemizes best practices.

  2. Be on the lookout for opportunities to automate manual processes and minimize training requirements.

  3. Seek out solutions that streamline data collection and regulatory research offering complex integration of multiple data sources, leaving more time for compliance analysis.

  4. Ensure that all proposed programs review and update data sources on a scheduled basis that is in keeping with jurisdictional requirements.


Quick access to accurate MSDS data increasingly is becoming important as companies face public scrutiny in the wake of incidents and acts of non-compliance. Industrial accidents obviously impact employees, the community and the environment, but they also can negatively impact the corporate brand and result in personal injury litigation, forced suspension of activities, regulatory fines and citations and decreased employee morale.

Consider that even if a small portion of your inventory is inaccurate, there could be disastrous consequences. An MSDS may not be available when needed, or critical safety data — such as med/tox data, exposure data, PPE — might be unavailable or incorrect. In the event of an incident, first responders may be unable to provide proper support documents to medical officials. For example, what is the risk if:

  • Waste profiles are incorrect and manifests prepared improperly?
  • Improper classification is listed on shipping documents and labels and load weights are miscalculated?
  • Sensitive chemicals (EHS) are undetected/unreported?
  • Reporting thresholds are calculated incorrectly?


When sourcing/developing a chemical inventory management system, you should look for a system that offers:

  • Information indexed directly from the MSDS.
  • Interpretive storage, transportation or waste classifications.
  • Expanded search capabilities.
  • List generation of SARA reportable products.
  • Expanded regulatory content.
  • Ability to incorporate other regulatory or internal documentation.
  • Data from your enterprise systems.

Requirements vary by industry, company size, areas of operation, the number of hazardous chemicals and a host of other criteria. Compile a list of program objectives that this system should achieve when fully implemented.

There are a few common misconceptions about MSDS management solutions, most notably that one size fits all, and that cheaper is better. It is important to remember that solution components do not need to be purchased and activated simultaneously, and that outsourced solutions do not eliminate the need for IT support (critical to the vendor approval process and during many implementation phases) or back office and administrative support.

If you decide to choose an MSDS management vendor, we recommend referencing the following checklist:

  • Do your homework thoroughly — the implementation of this program is likely one of the most important and impactful decision your company will make.
  • Analyze your internal data and performance requirements from EMIS (organizational) perspective.
  • Determine and compare vendor capabilities.
  • Understand your organization's role and resource requirement in a vendor partnership.
  • Get what you need today, avoid what you don't need right now and add what you need, when you need it.
  • Ask for SoWs, KPIs and implementation timelines.
  • Ensure vendors under consideration have implemented a quality management system that includes customer concern processing with documented corrective action procedures.
  • Find out if your outsource provider subcontracts their services (on and offshore).
  • Determine if you are billed annually, transactionally or both.
  • Check references.
  • Take advantage of structured bidding processes.


Once you have selected a new system, likely the most arduous part of transition from one chemical inventory management program to another is transferring site-specific inventories (and other internal data) from one system to the other. If current lists have not been updated in the last 12 months, it may be a good time to take accurate inventory.

Full-service providers should be able to ease this pain, as it is probably a standard element of their implementation plan. They may even offer onsite inventory assessment services. Tiered training should be available and scheduled as implementation comes to a close. Time commitments from all high-level users (inventory managers) will get the rollout started on the right foot.

Management of change processes should be invoked to guide and control the successful transition. Internal documentation (standard operating procedures, work instructions, work references) should be revised to reflect the change in process that will be affected by the new solution.

Finally, review your program annually — sooner if required — to assess its value and impact. Break out the list of program objectives generated when this system was being developed and determine if they were met. If not, are they still relevant? If they are, what gaps exist, what process must be improved, what capabilities are missing and what training is required to bring the system in line with organizational goals and objectives? As technology, regulations and what currently is known about substances we use and the environment in which we live change, so must our efforts to upgrade and improve our ability to be safe and protect our environment.

Kami Blake is a solutions engineer with 3E Company. She is responsible for providing technical support for 3E's broad suite of services and solutions. Blake has held a variety of positions since joining the company in 2002, including quality assurance manager, workload management manager and manufacturer services manager. She has achieved Environmental Health and Safety Specialist Certification (issued by the National Association of Safety Professionals) and Six Sigma Greenbelt Certification.

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