4 Questions from the ASSE Conference Regarding OSHA and MSDS Management

It was a terrific ASSE conference and I would like to personally thank all of the customers and attendees that stopped by the booth to say hello, get information and update us on their progress.

Also, a very special thanks to everyone that attended my presentation, HazCom Compliance Best Practices.

As is often the case, I fielded a lot of questions during my presentation, including four I heard repeatedly that deserve another look:

  • Can an MSDS by one manufacturer for a specific chemical be used to cover the same chemical by a different manufacturer?
  • What does “readily accessible” mean in relation to MSDS management?
  • Do you need to provide your employees with an MSDS for consumer products?
  • What will GHS mean to MSDS Management?

We’ll take them one at a time.

1. Can an MSDS by one manufacturer for a specific chemical be used to cover the same chemical by a different manufacturer? (e.g. acetone)

*Short answer: No

In an OSHA Letter of Interpretation dated March 27, 2007, OSHA states that “A material safety data sheet must be specific to each manufacturer’s product. Each MSDS must contain, at a minimum, the information required by the HCS; 29 CFR 1910.1200(g)(2)(i)-1910.1200(g)(2)(xii). Included in those provisions are requirements for the manufacturer/importer to provide their name, address, and telephone number or the same information for someone designated as a “responsible party.”

That seems pretty straight forward, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for confusion. In a Letter of Interpretation dated February 1, 1994, OSHA is asked if one MSDS could cover the same product from several manufactures, and the answer is maybe. The difference is, an MSDS for one company’s product can’t cover another company’s product; however, an MSDS could be created in such a way that it encompasses all of the information for all of the companies that manufacturer that product.

OSHA cautions that such an approach would require strenuous training to ensure employees understood how to cross reference the various product labels with the information on the MSDS. You can read the letter here; however, our advice would be to maintain a unique MSDS for each product by each manufacture – an easy task when done electronically.

So using the example of acetone, if you use acetone from three different manufactures, you must have an MSDS from each manufacturer for their acetone. Furthermore, you must keep MSDS records for 30 years. So if you use acetone from company A for five years, and then switch to acetone from company B, you must keep company A’s acetone MSDS for up to 30 years beyond the time of its last use.

[Note: OSHA does not require you to keep the actual MSDS for 30 years, but you must have “some record of the identity (chemical name if known) of the substance or agent, where it was used, and when it was used is retained for at least 30 years”(OSHA Letter of Interpretation dated January 13, 1986)

2. What does “readily accessible” mean in relation to MSDS management?

*Short answer: “The key… is that employees have no barriers to access to the information and that the MSDSs be available during all workshifts.” (OSHA Letter of Interpretation dated February 1, 1994)

OSHA allows companies to manage their MSDS electronically so long as employees have direct access to the MSDS and can produce a hard copy if desired. The MSDSs must be available to employees without them having to ask. Access to the MSDS must be available during the entire workshift each work day.

If an employer uses an electronic MSDS management tool, they must also have a back-up system for emergencies. To learn more, read our blog post: Is electronic MSDS management OSHA compliant?

An easier way to understand what qualifies as readily accessible may be to understand what does not qualify as readily accessible. An MSDS inside a locked office does not qualify as readily accessible. An MSDS mailed overnight on a per request basis does not qualify. Allowing employees to request an MSDS from a supervisor does not qualify as readily accessible. There must be no barriers to an MSDS, including people.

It is important for employers to understand that having MSDSs accessible does not in itself constitute compliance. Employees must also be informed regarding where the MSDSs are kept, and how they can obtain access to them.

An OSHA Letter of Interpretation dated January 22, 1990 expands on this theme:

“OSHA does not expect that every worker will be able to recite all of the information about each chemical in the workplace. The labels serve as an immediate reminder of the hazard information, while MSDSs are a more detailed reference source. In general, the training is to ensure that employees are aware they are exposed to hazardous chemicals, and that they know how to obtain, read, and use the written information on labels and MSDSs.”

When talking about a mobile workforce, the idea of “readily accessible” gets even trickier. OSHA does allow employers to keep MSDSs at a central location for mobile workforces (OSHA Letter of Interpretation dated October 18, 1990). However, if you have a unique situation, it is always best to seek guidance from OSHA to ensure compliance.

Contractors must also take precautions to ensure they’re employees have access to MSDS during their shifts. “If a contractor relies on another employer to maintain his MSDSs, and the MSDSs are unavailable to that contractor’s employees, the contractor could be cited under [1910.1200(g)(8)]” (OSHA Letter of Interpretation dated May 16, 1990)

As you can see “readily accessible” is a term that comes with a lot of grey area. Reading the many letters of interpretation on OSHA’s website that deal with accessibility can provide clarity.

3. Do you need to provide your employees with an MSDS for consumer chemical products?

*Short answer:  Not if the products are consumer quantities and used in the same manner that any other consumer would, and as directed by the manufacturer.

This is a common question we receive; especially now, with companies focusing more on safety and compliance in response to OSHA ramping up its regulatory enforcement efforts.

In general, the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) requires businesses to have Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for all potentially hazardous chemicals present at a worksite.  But the answer more accurately lies in how your employees use these types of products at your workplace.

If your employees use consumer chemical products in the same manner that any other consumer would, and as directed by the manufacturer, you probably don’t need to worry about having an MSDS.

On the other hand, if your employees use consumer chemical products in industrial quantities or for purposes that extend beyond that of an average consumer, especially in regards to the frequency and quantity of use, then their exposure rate is higher and you most likely do need to supply MSDSs for those products.

For more information on this topic, we recommend reading the OSHA Letter of Interpretation titled, “Requirements for maintaining material safety data sheets (MSDSs) for consumer art products and office cleaning products.”

4. What will GHS mean to MSDS Management?

*Short answer: I can boil it down to three main components:

1.  Standardized hazard definitions
2.  Standardized hazard warnings and symbols on container labels
3.  Standardized MSDS format and content

So what exactly is GHS? It’s a world-wide standardized approach to hazard communication, which is supported by the United Nations and regulatory agencies around the globe.  The stated aim of the GHS is to “enhance public health and environmental protection by ensuring safe transport, handling, use and disposal of hazardous materials.”

There are two key benefits to the GHS.  First, it should help your employees more easily read and understand the hazards associated with warning labels, MSDSs (or SDSs as they are often called in Europe), signs, placards, etc.  For instance, GHS requires that all MSDSs be written in the same format.

Currently OSHA does not require chemical manufacturers to follow any particular format as long as key hazards are identified as outlined by the HazCom standard.  Second, by merging the many disparate and often complex hazard symbols and images into a single hazard warning system, overtime will eliminate confusion.

How will GHS affect you?

  • If you are a chemical manufacturer, you will most likely need to re-author your MSDSs into the GHS format and make sure that your labels meet the GHS requirements
  • If you are not a chemical manufacturer, but use/ handle chemicals in your workplace, you will need to:
    • Train your employees on the new hazard warning system (this includes training them in how to read the new labels and MSDSs for the chemical hazards they are likely to see in their work areas)
    • Make sure that you keep your MSDSs up-to-date as they are sent to you by suppliers,
    • Make sure that your products are labeled properly including secondary labels

If you would like to catch one of my presentations, I’ll be speaking at several upcoming conferences, including:

June 24 - VPPPA Region IV

August 3 - Tennessee S&H

August 24 - VPPPA National Conference

I hope this helps clarify a few of your most pressing questions. If you have additional questions, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks again to everyone at ASSE. I look forward to seeing all of you next year in our sweet home Chicago.

– Glenn Trout, President, MSDSonline