MSDS MGT: Companies Are Never Too Small for MSDS and Chemical Management

OSHA’s revision of the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to align with GHS is likely only a few weeks away (four to eight weeks by many estimates).

And as the date approaches, there is a disquieting position being taken by some smaller workplaces that use chemicals — it’s the idea that they are “so small” they do not have to “worry” about changes to OSHA’s HazCom standard.

It’s a false conclusion, providing a false security, which can lead to a dangerous end.

This article will start by addressing that “too small to worry” mindset and end with two stories about hazard compliance from the past week that everyone should read.

Too Small to Worry?

At MSDSonline, we’ve spent the last couple of years working to help educate the marketplace about the coming changes to the HCS. It’s no secret that OSHA’s GHS alignment will be good for our business, since two of the key changes will be to safety data sheets and container labels — two compliance issues our solutions address.

However, we still get it — we know that not every business needs an electronic chemical management solution to maintain a safe workplace. That said, not needing an on-demand solution does not allay the need to manage hazardous chemicals and their corresponding MSDSs.

At MSDSonline, we firmly believe that every business, construction site, healthcare facility, K-12 and college campus, etc., in the United States that exposes workers to chemical hazards needs to pay attention to OSHA’s alignment with GHS.

It has nothing to do with whether or not you are too small to get “caught” by OSHA — or conversely so big you can afford any penalty —  it has to do with your own safety and the safety of your employees.

In Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, one of the first mates, Starbuck, sums up his whaling philosophy and approach to safety this way, “I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs.”

The same might be said by of all those employees working with chemicals and collecting a pay check from someone else, “I am here working with these chemicals for my living, and not to be killed or injured for someone else’s living.”

An organization’s size does not mitigate the dangers of the chemicals it employs. Deadly vapors, as we will see in the story that follows, do not discriminate based upon the size of a business or the number of workers it employs.

Staying on top of relevant safety standards is simply the right thing to do, and for employers it is the minimum responsibility they have to their workers.

Luckily, when it comes to GHS, at least for small downstream users of hazardous chemicals, staying compliant will not be terribly difficult. The most difficult part will probably be the training; yet even there, for truly small organizations, the benefits (a safer workforce) will greatly outweigh the costs.

Small Business Turns Deadly

This week, Fred Hosier of reported on a tragic incident in Theresa, Wisconsin where one worker was killed and another severely injured by a chemical exposure.

Hosier’s story starts by observing “It doesn’t take huge quantities of chemicals in a facility to create a potentially hazardous situation.”

The article goes on to describe how two men, working in a small room, were overtaken by chemical fumes. They were found by the wife of one after she had trouble getting a hold of her husband by phone.

According to Hosier, “An emergency management official” said the business “kept small quantities of chemicals on its premises in five gallon pails.” The official called it “a small-time operation.”

A great point Hosier makes in the article is how emergency responders were able to address the chemical hazard safely based upon pre-plan information the company had filed with the local agencies.

The Theresa Fire Chief explained, “Listed in that pre-plan is what’s in the building and what it’s used for,” Theresa Fire Chief Warren Stanke said. “These plans are available to our firefighters and rescue workers so they know what to expect when they walk into a place. Unfortunately, we find things that aren’t listed all the time — that’s why we have to go back and do our semi-annual inspections.”

Communicating information about the hazards and chemicals present in your work environment to local and state agencies is a core responsibility under SARA Title III Reporting.  For instance Tier II reporting requires a list of chemicals, their quantities and locations be filed each year with your state. Depending upon the chemicals you employ and the ingredients contained within, there could be dozens of other regulatory reporting obligations your company must adhere to.

Helping companies understand their reporting obligations based on the chemicals (or even the ingredients of those chemicals) present in their facilities is the key function of the regulatory cross referencing engine included in MSDSonline’s HQ RegXR Account. What you don’t know can hurt you and your employees.

Too Big to Care, Working Hard to not Comply

The second story that caught our attention this week was from the Associate Press by Lawrence Messina and Vicki Smith which details the $210M settlement over the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 workers in April of 2010.

According to Messina and Smith, it was the biggest settlement ever for a U.S. mining disaster. And along with news of the settlement, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued a report detailing 369 safety violations on the part of the mine owner.

Details of report’s findings are available on its MSHA’s Performance Coal Company Upper Big Branch Mine Web page.

Among the findings, according to Messina and Smith, are that "The physical conditions that led to the explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at UBB and were entirely preventable.”

Furthermore, MSHA director Joe Main is quoted saying, "[company] management created a culture of fear and intimidation in their miners to hide their reckless practices.”

In one of the most damning assessments, Messina and Smith report that before the disaster the mine company “had a poor safety record” and that it had a reputation “for treating fines as the cost of doing business. MSHA said its investigation found "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" …to cover up problems, including keeping two sets of inspection books — an accurate one for itself, and a fake one for regulators.”

The settlement is not the end of the story. While the new owner of the mine is in the clear for now, the U.S. attorney has warned that “no individuals are off the hook.” Meaning criminal charges could still be leveled against those people who contributed to the unsafe conditions.

No one who reads the article, and the comments from the relatives still grieving over the loss of their loved ones and looking for some kind of closure, can conclude that the pain and suffering caused by the explosion, which was the result of poor or non-existent safety practices, was worth the cost.

Doing the right thing the right way, in the end, is almost always the easiest path. Just ask Illinois former Governor Rod Blagojevich who this week was sentenced to 14 years in jail for taking one too many shortcuts.