MSDS Evolution: From Document to Data to Globalization

Some may assume that the lion's share of the responsibility is upstream, but downstream employers are not exempt.

OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) was first adopted in 1983 for the manufacturing sector. In 1987, the agency expanded the scope of coverage to include all industries where employees are potentially exposed to hazardous chemicals. The catalyst for HCS was the powerful Right-to-Know (RTK) movement that gained momentum in the late 1970s, first at the state level, as it forged ahead to achieve national influence. It began with workers who believed that they had the "right to know" about the hazards they were exposed to, the harm those hazards might cause, and the precautionary measures that could prevent or significantly minimize harmful effects.

This movement was not confined to the workplace. It later expanded to the communities living around facilities that used and/or manufactured hazardous materials. In response to the community's demand for information about potential hazards, such as what might be released into the air they breathed and the water they drank, EPA established the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Both RTK acts require the creation and maintenance of chemical inventory lists that itemize the hazardous materials manufactured, consumed, and stored that affect workers and the general public. Furthermore, each line item on that list is required to have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

The industry impact was immediate and expensive. Manufacturers, distributors, and importers were assigned the responsibility to create, update, and distribute these documents. Employers were required to obtain and maintain MSDSs in the workplace, ensuring there were no barriers to employee access. Early on, most employers adopted the position that the lion's share of responsibility was upstream. MSDS management was viewed as a tedious, hard-copy collection of documents. If the product vendor provided the MSDS, then it was often shoved into a binder with all the others. And if it didn't, some employers may have assumed none was required.

Document Management Systems
With the implementation of the HCS came a revision in OSHA's inspection procedures to account for HCS compliance in the workplace. It didn't take long before some broader portions of the standard required official clarification. Exempted products (materials that may contain hazardous substances but may not be subject to MSDS requirements), responsible party issues, and employee access to MSDS were addressed in a host of OSHA letters of interpretation. Citations for non-compliance and official interpretations increased employers' understanding of the regulation as more of a shared responsibility between supplier and employer.

For those workplaces where hundreds or thousands of hazardous materials were in production or use, disorganized and incomplete binder systems needed to be upgraded to a more manageable system. Binder systems started to include a master chemical list that itemized, organized, and alphabetized its contents. With the advent of technology and the ability to convert hard-copy documents into electronic media, many organizations looked to IT-based internal resources to assist with an automated document management effort. However, the pervasive implementation of improved MSDS management systems (automated or manual) failed to consider some critical processes.

What process, for instance, should be followed when:

  • A new hazardous material is added to a site-specific inventory?
  • The vendor does not produce the product or provide the MSDS and refers customers upstream to the manufacturer or supplier?
  • Newer versions of MSDSs become available?

Many "improved" systems were little more than a snapshot in time and were woefully inadequate to account for constant change. Another relevant issue that could not be ignored was the resource required in maintaining an MSDS management system. Third parties were sought to fulfill employee requests for MSDSs on demand. These organizations built document repositories and offered immediate fax-back services. When a required document was not readily available, the MSDS vendor would contact the manufacturer directly to obtain and subsequently transmit it to the requestor.

As a natural progression, many of these providers developed a user interface that enabled subscribing customers to build and maintain location-specific chemical inventory lists and associate the appropriate MSDS with each line item on the list. Third-party MSDSs on demand and electronic management systems helped to fill the gaps exposed by evolving informational requirements and ever-changing organizational and operational conditions. Dynamic electronic MSDS document management systems in place and RTK compliance secured, industry moved to the next issue: data management.

Data Management Systems
The value of the MSDS has broadened ambitiously beyond a document required to comply with RTK laws. Beyond the value of the hard-copy document itself, the value of the content is immeasurable. Consequently, MSDS management programs have evolved into chemical inventory management and compliance systems. These integrated solutions bring together organizational information (e.g., inventory lists, quantity and usage data, internal process requirements), critical product data indexed from the MSDS, and supplemental data (provided through interpretation), along with regulatory content to identify regulated materials quickly and the application of regulatory requirements.

Minimum MSDS content requirements include:

  • Product identity used on the label, and chemical and common name(s) of ingredients that have been determined to be health hazards
  • Physical and chemical characteristics
  • Physical hazards
  • Health hazards
  • Primary route(s) of entry into the body
  • Carcinogen information
  • Safe handling and use instructions
  • Procedures for cleanup of spills and leaks
  • Appropriate control measures
  • Emergency and first aid procedures
  • The date of preparation or the last change to it
  • Manufacturer/Distributor information

The previous list contains necessary and valuable information, but downstream data requirements have increased. Consumers and environmental groups have long since lobbied for eco-data, not just for informational purposes but also to establish and enforce expectations within the business community. Transporters of hazardous materials have their own set of unique data requirements. Waste classification is in high demand with many downstream industries, especially retailers.

To address the need for more data and to provide a logical sequence for the presentation of that data, the American National Standard for Hazardous Industrial Chemicals -- Material Safety Data Sheets -- Preparation (ANSI Z400.1-1993) was published in 1993 to establish an MSDS format containing 16 standard sections. Though conformance is optional, many mid-size to large chemical manufacturers haven taken advantage of this opportunity to create a clearinghouse of Environmental, Health and Safety (EH&S) data into a single form. It was an inevitable and logical transformation for MSDS, as creating separate reservoirs and distribution methods for critical data not required by RTK legislation would have been an expensive, resource-draining exercise.

MSDS systems that evolved into EH&S product data management tools have enterprise-wide appeal and have become an important structural component of many organizational Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. Product stewardship, industrial hygiene, transportation, environmental compliance, and even procurement departments can tap into these integrated solutions to assist with decision making. What once was considered to be a clerical exercise for the safety function has become a complex stream of expanded and interrelated data inherent to the efficient and successful operation of all internal EH&S disciplines. The transformation of this mandatory compliance document into a broad-based repository for relevant regulated product and substance data, is ready for its next global phase.

GHS Preparedness
The OSHA proposed rule for GHS classification, labeling and MSDS (or SDS) was widely anticipated for promulgation in August 2011. This will kick off a three-year transition period that will see the phase-out of old HCS information and the inconsistent MSDS format requirement into new GHS standards. Information that is now optional (e.g., transportation, eco, environmental, disposal considerations, etc.) will be mandatory, when applicable, under the new rule. The format of SDS, though similar to ANSI, will change. The number of data points will increase significantly, as will the presentation and description of that data.

While, once again, some may assume that the lion's share of the responsibility is upstream, downstream employers are not exempt. Employee retraining to the new GHS standard is no small undertaking. Neither is tracking and ensuring the timely revision or replacement of obsolete MSDSs to GHS-compliant SDSs. Reconfiguration of data structures to capture new and revised product and substance information and the creation of GHS label templates also must be addressed. Whether the data management systems are internally developed or outsourced, this work should be close to completion.

Your organization should be positioned with the necessary resources, expertise, budget, and technology to transition into GHS compliance. This is the critical next step in the evolution of chemical inventory compliance.

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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