Interpreting Material Safety Data Sheets

I ’m sure you’ve seen them before. Walk into any lab in the
country and hanging on a wall you should see a bright yellow binder with large,
friendly red letters announcing the presence of the
Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) book. If you don’t have
a book like this, make sure you put one together as soon as possible.

MSDS is a compendium of information relating to the storage, handling
and emergency treatment of a variety of chemicals that we use every day.
It’s required by law to have a complete MSDS available to anyone who has
access to any chemical material, whether it’s liquid, gas or solid. Other
than to comply with various agencies’ regulations, why would you want to
have this information available at work? Well, it depends on who you are.

Typical, high-optic MSDS book. MSD sheets
Typical, high-optic MSDS book. MSD sheets can be obtained from
the manufacturer or various websites.
Images: Hill S

Who cares about MSDS?

First and foremost, the workers at the facility need to know the harmful
attributes of each chemical and what to do to prevent them. Also, in the case
of accidental exposure to those harmful attributes, workers need to know how to
treat the person in question. It’s all about employee safety. This is also
why you usually find a fire extinguisher, first aid kit and eye-wash station
located near the MSDS book.

Another thing you usually find near the MSDS book is an appropriate
chemical storage container, which brings us to the second person who needs to
know this information, and that is the employer. The employer needs to know how
to properly store each material. The employer is responsible for providing a
spark-resistant cabinet for storage of flammable materials as well as
appropriate containers to dispense small amounts to work with during the course
of the work day. It’s no longer considered OK to use old shampoo bottles
to hold acetone and thinner. That kind of violation could get your lab shut
down in some cases. The employer doesn’t need that, and neither does
anyone else for that matter.

The third group of folks who need this information is rescue personnel.
An emergency medical technician (EMT) or doctor needs to know how to treat the
person unlucky enough to swallow or otherwise expose themselves to a hazardous
material. For this reason, you will need to know the specific chemical
you’re using, so that when you arrive at the hospital, you can answer
questions correctly. Also, firefighters need to know how to put out a fire
fueled by different chemicals. Water doesn’t work on certain kinds of
fires, but firefighters have an array of tools at their disposal to combat them
all. The MSDS contains information that they will find useful.

What is MSDS?

So what is in this magical, miracle book? Let’s break it down by
the numbered sections.

  1. Identification: This is the name of the product — either generic
    or brand name.
  2. Hazard identification: Will it affect the eyes? Inhalation danger?
    Ingestion danger?
  3. Composition/information on ingredients: What are the constituent
  4. First-aid measures: This is the info the EMT or doctor is going to
    need to treat you.
  5. Fire-fighting measures: Firefighters have a fairly complete MSDS at
    hand. Tell them what is burning.
  6. Accidental release measures: How do you clean up any spills that
    might occur?
  7. Handling and storage: Is it flammable or corrosive? This will tell
    you how to hold it safely.
  8. Exposure controls/personal protection: What kinds of gloves, eye
    protection or respiration are required?
  9. Physical and chemical properties: What are the freezing and boiling
    temperatures? Color? Odor?
  10. Stability and reactivity: What other materials should you avoid
    contact with?
  11. Toxicological information: Is it cancerous? Does it have
    reproductive consequences?
  12. Ecological information: Does it adversely affect air, ground water,
  13. Disposal considerations: When you are through with it, how do you
    safely throw it away?
  14. Transport information: Did you know that some materials have special
    shipping requirements?
  15. Regulatory information: Are there any government agencies that
    regulate this stuff?
  16. Other information: What else do you need to know that is not covered
    in the rest of the form?

What’s in it for me?

For all intents and purposes, the only sections that we will concern
ourselves with are numbers 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 13. To begin with, what are the
hazards we face with this chemical? This also speaks to number 8 and how do I
protect myself from that hazard? If it’s a contact hazard, you will
probably need to wear both gloves and eye protection. Are the fumes from the
chemical also hazardous? Then respiration may also be in order. Number 4 is
where we will look to find out first-aid information, like, should I induce
vomiting or drink water if I ingest this material? Number 5 tells me what to do
in case this material ignites. Is it better to dowse it with water, smother it
with a blanket or hit it with a chemical extinguisher?

Numbers 6, 7 and 13 go hand in hand, in my opinion. Number 6 is
specifically about how to clean it up if it spills. Maybe it is okay to mop it
up like water, but you might have to use a spill agent like paper towels or
kitty litter. The way that you may then dispose of that clean-up (or a
material, like oil, after it has been used) is addressed in number 13, while
number 7 lets you know if it needs to be stored in a flash-proof cabinet or if
it can just go on a shelf.

  Spark-proof cabinets
  Spark-proof cabinets come in
several sizes and are priced for all budgets.

Be prepared!

If you don’t have an MSDS book, by all means, put
one together now. Go around the lab and office with a pad and pen and write
down every chemical you see. In the lab, it will be things like acetone,
thinner, lamination materials (carbon fiber sheets count, too), glues and
various lubrications. Typical MSDS items found in the office space are things
like White-Out, printer toner or ink, sanitizing gel or wipes and air
freshener. If the receptionist keeps nail polish and mascara at her desk, get
sheets for those items, too.

The same principle goes for things you find in the bathroom. Yes,
you’ll list all of the cleaning supplies and air fresheners, but you may
find some personal items that need to be listed too. Look for hair spray,
perfume/cologne and such items as well. If it can get into your eyes, up your
nose or down your throat, it will need an MSD sheet. Something often overlooked
are those newfangled spiral light bulbs that are supposed to last longer and
use less electricity. They, like fluorescent lights, contain mercury and lead,
which must be collected and disposed of in a certain way. Are you curious about
what it is? Download the MSDS and you’ll see.

Resources for information

This brings us to an important topic: resources. One of
my favorite places to get MSD sheets is the Southern Prosthetic Supply (SPS)
website. For me, it is easy to remember, and there is a portal to a source for
everything that SPS sells that needs a sheet. Go to and click on
the “Services” link. You’ll find a searchable list of all of the
items that you’ll find in the lab. It is my go-to source for all of the
most important items.

For everything that I can’t find on that website, I got to This site is a bit clunkier to use, but you can find almost
anything on it. There are other sites, but some of them charge money for their
services, so doing a quick Google search will yield all kinds of results that
may prove more useful for your specific needs.

Do I really need all of that?

Besides several government bullies who have seen fit to mandate that you
have a complete and updated MSDS book, it is wise to have access to this
information for your own potential benefit. It was designed with the purpose of
keeping you as safe as possible in an unsafe and uncertain world. Not only
should you have ready access to this wondrous tome of arcane information, but
you should spend some quality time with it. You know, actually read the sage
advice contained therein. Familiarizing yourself with the more dangerous
chemicals can prove to be a real time saver in the event that an accident

Another tip is to index each sheet to make it easy to locate in the
event of an emergency. I’ve seen MSDS books that were simply collections
of mixed-together random sheets stuffed into a manila folder. If you can’t
locate the information you need quickly, you might as well not even have an
MSDS book. Because you are required to have it, you might as well put one
together that will be useful in the event it is ever needed.

Steve Hill Steve Hill, CO is secretary and co-founder of
the Orthotic Prosthetic Technological Association and president of Delphi
Ortho, an orthotic consulting firm based in Asheville, N.C. He serves on the
American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association Assembly Planning Committee and is
a Board of Certification/Accreditation, International Facility Accreditation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.