Uncovering Chemical Inventory Dangers

Better inventory methods and MSDS management can increase safety.

THE other night, I was watching the blockbuster movie "Titanic." Seeing that iceberg break up the world's most un-sinkable ship, it occurred to me that it's life's dangers that you can't see that will get you in trouble.

This fact is driven home to me frequently, as a member of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) compliance and chemical management industry. I am not talking about accidents where a chemical or gas is unwittingly spilled or ignited. I am talking about potentially hazardous situations that companies don't know they are perpetuating daily.

The "icebergs" that we see popping up in American industry with increasing frequency often have to do with chemical inventories that are seriously out of sync with companies' MSDS sets and are undetected through your central stores and purchasing systems. There are hidden hazardous products lurking out there. In short, we just don't know what's on our shelves!

Seeing Beneath the Tips of the Icebergs
OSHA estimates there are some 3 million U.S. businesses storing and using hazardous chemical products. All EH&S workers know that for each of these "regulated" products, there must be an easily obtainable MSDS available on site--in paper or electronic form--for his or her company to remain in compliance.

You would think that because everyone wants to protect their workers and wants to avoid dreaded government inspections and resulting fines, companies would know precisely what they have on their shelves at all times. And you'd expect that these companies would keep their MSDS sets squeaky clean. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the vast majority of enterprise operations. Most companies are ignorant of their chemical inventory dangers.

This is where I expect you to ask, "If the companies don't know what they have on their shelves, how do you discover these hidden dangers?" It's simple. New technologies are now acting like the marine radar and sonar systems that ships use to plot the size and location of icebergs that are invisible to the naked eye. Technology and new tools are coming to the rescue. Greater visibility into what is really on our industries' shelves is now being made possible to us through today's better electronic inventory methods that can plug directly into MSDS databases.

How the Dangers Start
To continue with our "Titanic" metaphor, often the reason chemical inventory threats pop up in industry in the first place is because of large numbers of products flowing in under U.S. companies' procurement radar/sonar screens.

Don't get me wrong; I have the highest admiration for the professionalism and capabilities of American procurement departments. They do a great job of controlling large-ticket, large-volume chemical purchases. As case studies on the supply side of chemical management have shown, these same procurement people have realized big savings by reducing the number of their chemical vendors and getting these vendors to sell them less-toxic products. Everyone, including the safer worker, wins.

However, when indirectly purchased hazardous chemical inventories begin to build, the bad stuff most often slips under procurement's radar in "small" quantities--through endless use of site issued purchase cards (P-cards) or through local requisitions. I have seen scores of examples in the past two years of companies--across a broad range of verticals and a wide range of product holdings (from several hundred chemicals to tens of thousands)--where product-to-MSDS reconciliation was significantly out of sync.

Many companies, when they undergo a proper electronic-assisted inventory that is tied to the MSDS database, find they are anywhere from 50 percent to 85 percent out of compliance. That means that they have a chemical product on site for which they have no MSDS. Another scenario that isn't so much dangerous as costly is that many companies are also managing a significant number of MSDSs for products they do not have or are no longer using. According to an OSHA study, the average company spends close to $15 per MSDS to fully manage a hard-copy system every year. If you're managing paper MSDSs for products that you no longer have or use, you're wasting money. (Here, the first piece of advice is to automate your MSDS set.)

Other problems we see among companies include unwittingly purchasing and using overlapping products with redundant functions. I have seen numerous situations where companies--across their enterprise--have bought and are storing in excess of 100 different brands of ammonias, solvents, and degreasers. These "redundant" products, though they may perform the same functions, can contain wildly differing compounds, some far more toxic than you would want. Often, in large, multi-site companies, there are far too many products that are being used at only one site with a huge variation in price point. This kind of uncontrolled buying, storage, and use of chemicals is costly and potentially dangerous.

Breaking Up the Dangers
Obviously, your company wants to know precisely what chemicals you have, in what amounts, and in which locations. It makes no sense to pay to store, track, comply with, and dispose of compounds you don't need or shouldn't have.

The normal package required to conduct a proper electronic inventory of a site includes using a portable scanning gun attached to a tablet PC loaded with the inventory tracking software. Usually, data can be entered using the barcode scanner (for about 60 percent of the shelved brands--UPC, manufacturer, or other vendor codes), an attached keyboard, an on-screen keyboard, or a digital pen (for handwriting on the tablet screen). The time it takes to conduct such an inventory depends on the size of the operation, but generally speaking, 250 to 400 different products can be inventoried per day. To be truly effective, this data collection should be seamlessly integrated into your company's MSDS database through a chemical compliance software platform.

Benefits of this kind of accurate electronic chemical inventory management include that you will finally know what is truly in your inventory. You'll know the specific MSDS that will satisfy compliance. And if you don't have the MSDS either at the site, the location, or in your or your MSDS provider's master database, that MSDS can be requested from the chemical manufacturer.

Other benefits of electronic inventory taking are that you can know the exact quantities of each chemical you have (helpful for EPA reporting), the container types used for storage, how much product your company uses, and with what frequency the chemical is used.

Smooth Sailing Ahead
Getting a clear picture of your hazardous chemical inventory not only will help your company improve your compliance with regulatory rules, but it also will provide a wealth of information that can later form the basis for management decisions on storing, reducing, substituting, or eliminating dangerous substances.

Additionally, no serious chemical management efforts should neglect putting into place some kind of good, computer-enabled chemical request and approval process. After all, it makes no sense to break up the chemical inventory icebergs that have been floating around in your facilities if you are going to let them form again by allowing un-reconciled, uncontrolled hazardous materials back on your sites.

By gaining insight into product quantities, you can prevent product over-buying and duplication and improve inventory knowledge to help your company reduce its chemical vendor count. Using the information from your inventory and MSDS databases, you can consolidate suppliers and put purchases out to bid. With this type of physical inventory data, you can not only reduce costs on the procurement side, but also reduce your company's financial exposure by having an in-compliance MSDS database.

Through better chemical inventory methods and MSDS management, you can finally rid your shelves of products that are highly toxic and obsolete. From a safety standpoint, there is great benefit in cleaning the shelves of unneeded hazardous materials. Best of all, you'll have the knowledge that you are protecting your most valuable asset: your workers.

This article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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