Online and On Time

In the Internet age, keeping citations at bay can be just a few keystrokes away.

CHEMICALS and a bustling workplace can lead to a lethal combination. Keeping track of what is being used, how it is being used, and the disastrous effects that may occur if it is used incorrectly can seem overwhelming. Chemical hazard communication is a difficult topic to manage, but there is hope out there. With the Internet, getting information is easier than ever, and companies are constantly developing new products to help.

OSHA posts its objectives online (www.osha.gov) in clear language and provides links to additional information. One of the best resources is the Society for Chemical Hazard Communication (www.schc.org), which provides semiannual newsletters, links, and a commitment to education and clear information. With the SCHC-OSHA alliance, small businesses are gaining what they need to know about Hazard Communication and Material Safety Data Sheets. They also are addressing future challenges. And with U.S. manufacturers increasingly sending their products into the global marketplace, the alliance has committed to increasing awareness of the Global Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals.

All of these resources are directed at keeping companies in compliance with OSHA standards. In 2005, OSHA issued 2,395 citations for failure to properly execute written hazard communications, with initial penalties of more than $1.1 million. Other citations included improper training or lack of HazCom training of employees and not providing MSDSs for each hazardous chemical. Preventing citations and properly managing chemicals is an ongoing process, but it's getting much better. For a company that is willing to invest some time and effort, software may be the key to proper management, helping to organize information and providing a link to companies that specialize in compliance. In the age of the Internet, using such a tool might just keep a citation at bay.

Before making a decision on what might be right for your company, a little research should be done. OSHA provides an alphabetical listing of topics on its www.osha.gov site to help end users find relevant information. Updated in May 2004, the site lists all of the information relevant to its Hazard Communication standard. The HazCom standard requires that chemical hazards be evaluated by manufacturers and importers, that labels and MSDSs convey hazard information, and that employers provide this information and train employees. The site also offers information and training for managing these tasks. Getting all of this information is the first step to ensuring compliance; it also helps a company to know it is following the standard correctly.

Having information organized and available is important. Developing a plan for better communication depends on a company's specific needs. With new innovations, several options, and a lot of information available, the organization can be tailored.

Small Successes
Staying within compliance can feel like a full-time job. Masha Ushomirsky, a safety officer for the Cambridge, Mass.-based Peptimmune Inc., found an assistant in the form of a tool that helps her comply with not only OSHA's standards, but also EPA's.

Charged with many different tasks for ensuring the health and safety at her facility, a biotechnology company that develops immunotherapies for treating autoimmune and allergic diseases, Ushomirsky said she turned to a compliance site called eH&E-LabSupport and found that it offers all relevant information in a centralized and accessible place.

The site "is a perfect blend of support functions for my health and safety compliance program," she said. "It provides a single, easy-to-use interface for my entire program that is accessible to the company. It is also completely customizable and not rigid like other software programs. I can adapt the templates, data displays, and tools to fit my company's very specialized needs. And perhaps the most valuable aspect to me is the peer support I receive . . . . It's just great to be able to get all my questions answered, no matter how technical, by a single source."

Ushomirsky said the online tool allows her to organize all of the chemicals she uses in an inventory while also enabling her to build her own templates for more challenging items. With biotechnology, a lot of the material varies between biological and pure chemicals. The tool keeps her on track by forcing her to enter the right information in the correct fields with prompts for placing data, she said. This sets up a searchable database that allows for modified lists and quick searching.

Most of all, with the software, Ushomirsky said she knows all of her information is correct and up to date, and managing chemicals is made easier. With an extensive inventory to manage, Ushomirsky is able to track the purchase and expiration date of chemicals, maintain an accurate record of the locations, and ensure chemicals have the right MSDS information available. The tool also lets her manage other employees' knowledge about the chemicals they're working with. "Within this system, you're able to catch things before they become a problem," she said.

With MSDSs, Ushomirsky is sure that chemicals have been entered in the inventory and knows where the information is stored. She also has access to any form she may need to meet compliance standards and can take additional measures to safeguard against bloodborne pathogens and exposures. And if OSHA comes knocking, Ushomirsky feels confident there won't be a problem. She has everything she needs managed and available for inspection, she said. All she has to do is physically locate a particular MSDS, remove it from its binder, and hand it over.

MSDS Management
Many companies have ditched the bulky binders and cumbersome filing systems altogether, opting instead to take the whole thing online. Software designed for accomplishing such moves is becoming increasingly popular. MSDS management software, in particular, can save companies a large amount of paperwork and a lot of time, allowing users the ability to have all of their information just a few keystrokes away.

"Every new product is required to have an MSDS," said Carl Potter, a Certified Safety Professional. "So if a company purchases a cleaner or solvent or [brings] something like that on site, it has to have a form."

Potter, a management consultant, has conducted safety workshops and seminars since 1993 after working for 17 years with one of the largest electrical utility companies in the United States. (He and his wife, Deb Potter, are the authors of books that include "Who is Responsible for Safety?" "Simply Seamless Safety" and "Zero! Responsible Safety Management by Design.") He said he has seen the evolution of MSDSs from paper materials to online databases and knows how much easier the latter makes achieving compliance. Traditionally, MSDSs have been kept in large catalogs or binders, and the individual sheets must be kept up to date physically. With employees coming and going and new employees possibly not realizing what hasn't been updated, the use of paper products can easily lead to mismanagement. Now, with online databases, other companies often manage the material, and access is easy. Placing MSDS management in someone else's hands can give companies the assurance they will find the document they need when they need it.

Online services often sell a subscription to their full-blown database. An employee simply goes to the Web site, logs in, and prints the MSDS directly. This has several benefits: Material that is being updated all the time becomes more centralized. Employees are able to find relevant information quickly, allowing them to be confident their employers are in compliance. Also, when OSHA does visit, information is readily accessible in just minutes, with most online services.

And MSDS services offer a new level of confidence if an accident occurs. "If I get into something, [online service providers] are going to be able to find out what it is," Potter said. "For instance, say I am using a product and I get injured as a result of it. I can find it quickly."

Within the health care industry, emergency rooms with MSDS services are able to access the information quickly to help personnel treat accident victims. And communication has simply become better. "I have yet to find an employer that has problems communicating the MSDS now. It used to be more of a problem; 10 years ago it was a bigger problem," Potter said.

Selecting Software
As more companies turn to Web-based solutions for management, the market for MSDS products continues to respond to what customers want.

Donley Technologies recently released its sixth edition of "The MSDS Software Report." When it was first published in 1993, there were just a few software packages available. Today, there are 67 packages, covering topics from managing and authoring materials to finding MSDSs. Companies also are releasing software programs that conform to international standards and feature more languages. The software being released today allows companies to find just what they are looking for, whether it is authoring new MSDSs or managing what's out there. Software development is helping to make MSDS management more attainable with better information.

"It makes it easier to get information on chemicals that are being used and to avoid hazards with chemicals. Also, as companies work to have these MSDSs more standardized and make them available, there's more exposure on [the need for] MSDSs to have correct information," said Elizabeth Donley, president of Donley Technology.

"The MSDS Software Report" covers everything from services to different systems for MSDSs and gives users an extremely in-depth look into the packages on the market. There's a profile for each package, as well as comparison tables, helping companies determine exactly what features they want.

Donley said she sees a lot of potential for the future of MSDS software. Moving away from a paper format can help to educate employees and employers by making the information more user-friendly. Software improves material safety data, offering interactive features such as film clips, links to regulations, and additional information. And the price may not be so overwhelming. The previous edition of "The MSDS Software Report" came out in 2001, but since then, prices for software haven't increased, Donley said.

Harmonization, Other Issues
A movement to improve the clarity of MSDSs continues to be a priority for much of the occupational health and safety community. U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently introduced a legislative package addressing OSHA reforms.

Included is the HazCom Simplification and Modernization Act of 2005, S. 2067, which would direct the U.S. Department of Labor to develop model MSDSs and form a commission that would make recommendations for implementing the GHS system, the globally harmonized scheme for classifying chemicals and hazard communications.

This article appeared in the July 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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