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Understanding Material Safety Data Sheets

A Material Safety Data Sheet, or MSDS, contains information on the potential hazards (health, fire, reactivity, or environmental) of a chemical or material. The MSDS document also features detailed information on how to work safely with the hazardous material at hand. In Canada, any material that is controlled by the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) must be distributed with an MSDS document from the supplier.

What you’ll find on an MSDS:
A material safety data sheet contains much more information about a material than the manufacturer’s label. In fact, MSDS sheets must include nine (9) detailed categories of information as defined in the Controlled Products Regulations:

  • Product information (this includes the product’s name, manufacturer and supplier names, addresses, and emergency phone numbers)
  • Hazardous ingredients
  • Physical data
  • Fire or explosion hazard data
  • Reactivity data (information detailing the chemical instability of the product and the substances it may react with)
  • Toxicological properties and health effects
  • Preventative measures
  • First aid measures
  • MSDS preparation information (this will include who is responsible for the preparation of the document and the date the document was prepared)

How to read an MSDS:
Information provided on an MSDS should be written in a clear, concise, and understandable manner. While MSDS documents may differ depending on the supplier, they should all contain the aforementioned nine categories of classification. When reading a material safety data sheet, it is very important to pay attention to the chemical’s name, the hazards associated with the chemical, the proper storage and handling procedures for the chemical, and what to do in the case of an emergency.

Who are MSDS documents intended for?
Material safety data sheets were originally intended for occupational hygienists and safety professionals. Today, MSDS documents are reviewed by employers, workers, supervisors, nurses, doctors, and emergency responders. In the workplace, MSDS sheets should be reviewed by:

  • Workers whose responsibilities require them to be exposed to a potentially hazardous material.
  • Employers who need to know the proper methods of storing and handling a hazardous material.

Workers must have ready access to the material safety data sheets for every hazardous material known to be present within the workplace. MSDS documentation should be located in an area that is easily accessible. It is imperative that all workers are made aware of the MSDS storage location; please contact your supervisor immediately if you are unsure where the MSDS sheets are located in your department.

Prevent accidents: Review MSDS documents:
Workers should always review material safety data sheets PRIOR to working with a chemical that has been recognized by WHMIS as a hazardous material. The simple act of reviewing the MSDS will help protect you and your co-workers from a potentially deadly mistake.