From MSDS to SDS: 3 Reasons OSHA’s Transition to GHS is Going to Get Worse Before it Gets Better

1.      Your MSDS Library is Going to Get Crazy For at Least a Couple of Years!

Almost every day at MSDSonline we get some variation of the following question: “Is there one place I can go right now to get all of the new GHS styled Safety Data Sheets?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. What’s great about the question, though, is that it means the person asking it has some awareness that important changes have been made to OSHA’s HazCom Standard that affects safety data sheets, and that their entire safety data sheet library will need to be updated. However, the question also signals a common confusion safety professionals and others have about the timing of the changes.

Many people think that because the revised HazCom standard went into effect in May of 2012, and that because the first deadline to train employees on the formatting changes to labels and SDSs is a month away (Dec. 1, 2013), that all of the new SDSs must be ready and waiting. This is not the case; nor is it likely to be for several years.

Chemical manufacturers and distributors actually have until June 1, 2015 to update their safety data sheets. And before they can do that properly, they must first reclassify their chemicals using specific GHS criteria OSHA has adopted for health and physical hazards.

Of course, there is nothing preventing chemical manufacturers and/or distributors from doing it today, and a handful have already made the important changes -- which is why OSHA wants employees trained on the new formats sooner rather than later. Still, the great majority of manufacturers and distributors have not...which means that between now and at least until June 1, 2015 (though likely longer as discussed in item #2 below) employers should expect to have a mixed bag of safety data sheets in their library.

To reiterate: even a company like MSDSonline that specializes in managing millions of safety data sheets, with over 20 thousand new or updated safety data sheets added each week, does not have all of the updated MSDSs yet. No company does...because the vast majority of them have not yet been created. They will be coming out sporadically over the next few years.

Luckily, OSHA does not expect employers to have them yet. Employers and companies like MSDSonline can only update their libraries as quickly as the manufacturers and distributors do their work. What OSHA does expect is that employers will have a plan in place for ensuring that as updated safety data sheets come into the facility, that they are handled properly. This means comparing the new safety data sheets to the old ones to see if there are any new hazards that employees need to be trained on, and ensuring the updated documents are made available to employees in a timely fashion (i.e. before they work with an updated chemical).

But here’s where things get really crazy!

What we’re seeing today is that a lot of chemical manufacturers are making the shift to GHS styled safety data sheets in stages. So it’s not a clean break from the past to a complete and compliant adoption of the new format. Instead, at MSDSonline, we’re seeing a lot of what we call “Frankenstein” documents: safety data sheets that have some of the GHS elements, but not all of them; documents with most of the elements, but information in the wrong sections; or all of the sections, but in the wrong order.

Instead of it being a clean break from whatever the old format was to the new GHS style, we’re seeing a movement toward GHS by many companies, without making it all the way there. What does this mean for employers? It means that while in the future things may get easier in regards to safety data sheets, but for the time being, it’s going to be nuts.

2.    There is Already an MSDS Authoring Log Jam

So we’ve already established that in order for employers to update their MSDS libraries, chemical manufacturers and distributors must first update the MSDSs. We’ve also discussed the fact that OSHA has given both parties until June 1, 2015 to complete the process. So what’s the problem? The problem is that chemical manufacturers and distributors are run by humans - and most humans are procrastinators.  Also, for many manufacturers, re-writing all of the MSDSs into the new SDS format and sending them downstream is an expensive endeavor, so they need to budget for it, and work through their chemical/MSDS inventory.

At MSDSonline, we work both sides of the table. We help companies author safety data sheets in the GHS style and we help employers manage them. This means we spend a lot of time talking to everyone involved in the lifecycle of an MSDS, and what we’ve learned is that a good number of chemical manufacturers and distributors do not plan to update their documents until very close to the deadline.

If it was a one step process to go from original chemical manufacturer to end user, that might not be such a bad thing. However, in our complex chemical marketplace, chemicals often make many stops before reaching the final user. E.g., Company C makes a product using chemicals from Company B. Company B makes its product using chemicals from Company A, and so on. The result is, it’s hard for Company B or C to update their safety data sheets before Company A has updated its safety data sheets.

We’re seeing this exact scenario play out today. We have customers on the authoring side who are ready to update their documents, but their suppliers have not made the transition yet. The long term effect is likely going to be a log jam come the June 1, 2015 deadline. Employers should anticipate some updated documents not being updated for an unknowable period of time even after the deadline passes.

To help combat this lag in the marketplace, one thing employers could do today is start putting some bottom up pressure on the supply chain. Ask your vendors about their plans to transition to GHS. In some ways it’s a simple matter of capacity. With over a million chemicals requiring new safety data sheets, there is not enough time or people to author all of the MSDSs if everyone waits until the last minute.

3.    Once You Get Your New Safety Data Sheets, You Have Some Work to Do

Unfortunately, as employers, you don’t have the option to sit back and wait for all of the chemical manufacturers and distributors to finish all of their work before you begin yours. Throughout the process, when an update is made to the MSDS, you’ll have to pay attention. And it is in that task that a good electronic safety data sheet management solution can really help. A good system can track what’s new, easily toggle between versions, update and deploy documents quickly across the organization.

Here’s a simple plan to help employers be successful over the next few years:

  1. Do a chemical inventory. It’s hard to be compliant keep up with the changes if you don’t know what chemicals are in your facility today.
  2. Make sure you have a current safety data sheet for every chemical on your inventory.
  3. Dispose of chemicals you no longer need, are expired, or are otherwise obsolete.
  4. Make sure any employee on the frontline, who could conceivably be the first person to receive a safety data sheet, knows about the updates and is on the lookout for MSDSs. Chemical manufactures are only required to send an updated document with the first shipment, or the first shipment after a change has been made.
  5. Make sure frontline employees know what to do with MSDSs when they encounter them.
  6. Compare new safety data sheets against the older ones as they enter the facility. Check to see if there are any new hazards, instructions, or safe handling recommendations.
  7. Train employees on new information and hazards as required.
  8. Have a plan for archiving older documents if that is how is you comply with OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910.1020 -- Access to Employee Exposure and Medical Records Standard.
  9. Update your safety data sheet library.

You should know, once the deadline passes, OSHA will expect employers to make a good faith effort to secure updated safety data sheets for chemicals they receive without such documents. Of course if a safety data sheet ever goes missing for a chemical in use at a facility, OSHA also expects employers to secure the manufacturer’s most current safety data sheet for the product.

Electronic management of safety data sheets can assist in many of these tasks, from tracking MSDS versions to deploying documents throughout the company. A good solution can also do a lot more, like track chemicals throughout your facilities, providing mobile access to MSDSs and other critical information in real time, cross-referencing chemicals against local, state and federal regulatory lists and powering robust reporting.

The road to GHS adoption has been a long one for OSHA, but for employers, the race has just begun. By understanding the challenges that lie ahead and preparing, employers can ensure they remain in compliance and more importantly that their employees have the necessary information to work safely.

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