Safety Unbound

3E Co. hopes to simplify employers' MSDS workload with an online alternative to the traditional three-ring binder.

MATERIAL Safety Data Sheets are just one element of a large periodical table of safety regulations with which employers must comply to best ensure workers' safety. On the surface it may appear a simple, singular task, but it can easily grow into a giant, complicated mess. The common practice still in use today for many companies is to keep hard copies of the sheets on hand in three-ring notebook binders. Many hours are spent updating these notebooks; despite an employer's best efforts, the results can become cumbersome binders filled with outdated or poor, fax-quality sheets that can become lost, torn, or covered in smudges and dirt. In some cases, notebooks become engorged with multiple duplicates or sheets that are required only for a separate location.

The Digital Debate
In order to improve efficiency and the bottom line, many companies have turned to using computer software to keep MSDSs indexed in a digital format. This saves paper and eases the process some, but many hours still must be spent updating the MSDSs. Prabhu Natarajar, director of product management at California-based 3E Co. Inc., said 3E Online®--MSDS 5.1 combines the ease of electronic recordkeeping databases with nonstop, automatic updates and full-service support from an international team of experts.

"That is one of the things that highly differentiates 3E Online from other products that are in the marketplace, in the sense that with other products, you may get an application or software like a shell application and customers have to input their own documents to get them in there," he said. "So they are given a tool, but the burden, the resources, and the time required to manage those MSDSs resides with the customer. Whereas with 3E Online, when you buy the tool you are buying the underlying service."

Mack Turner, a safety superintendent at Arizona-based Tucson Electric Power, has experienced firsthand the difference between using traditional binders and 3E's service. "We used the old paper system where we had MSDS books, and it was up to us to keep them updated and current. It was really an administrative nightmare," he said. "Essentially, we've been able to use a full-time employee for something else, because what we were doing before was taking a full-time person."

With the system provided online, no client installation is required. Customers supply their inventory lists to start, or 3E can send a specialist on site to perform a plant inventory. As updates become available, old MSDSs are archived at a secure storage facility on paper or in electronic format DAT tape and available to customers upon request. Because MSDS management and product inventory are interconnected, the system has been designed to double as inventory software, Natarajar said, noting the system's inventory-friendly, drop-down menu design indexes MSDSs by specific plant locations. "We go behind the scenes, find all those MSDSs for them, set up their location tree, and associate the right MSDS to the right location. That's one of the most powerful features that we provide to them," he said.

Safety in Global Terms
This inventory option becomes especially useful to companies competing internationally and facing the prospect of managing locations worldwide, each subject to different regional requirements and different language barriers. As part of its international service, 3E ensures all necessary information from more than 50 different regulatory lists is present for each location in whatever language necessary in order to provide a uniform system of employee access.

"If you look across the globe, most countries with any kind of regulatory regime require employees to be given access to chemical information and things like that at some level," Natarajar said. "Any time you are implementing policies and procedures, it's just efficient for them to apply a consistent rule across the board. If you try to manage the exception, I think that introduces inefficiencies."

With any sort of widespread access to sensitive data, the issue of security becomes important. The 3E system allows customizable access for each employee. The most basic employee can use a basic user screen to search and print out MSDSs. Regional- or corporate-level employees are granted more administrative rights, such as the ability to add, remove, or transfer products from plant inventories or the ability to use the program's more sophisticated features, such as its SARA federal reporting module.

OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard, 29 CFR 1910.1200, requires employee accessibility in the work area to MSDSs. For whatever reason, if online access were to be momentarily lost during an OSHA inspection, the client company could be subject to fines and citations. 3E has prepared for such a possibility by supplying a help hotline that is available all day, 365 days a year. Even if the connection is not lost, customers can use it whenever help is needed. Turner said he experienced the advantage of this option. "A lot of times, if you need an MSDS sheet right now, in our old system you'd hunt through books and you might get an old version, if you could find it at all," he said. "This way, we've had three or four instances where we needed an MSDS right now and we were able to either access it immediately or have help from 3E to get it within an hour or so."

This column appeared in the November 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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

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