Top 5 Tips for Improving Chemical SDS Management

By Glenn Trout Dec 1, 2014
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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hazard communication standard is not difficult to understand, yet many companies have difficulty with compliance.

Hazard communication (HazCom) violations have ranked No. 2 on OSHA’s list of the most cited violations for three consecutive years, between 2012 and 2014, and were ranked number No. 3 on the list between 2008 and 2011. Clearly, OSHA is continuing to take violations in this category more seriously.

The HazCom standard requires employers with workers exposed to hazardous chemicals to:

  • Maintain a written HazCom plan.
  • Have a written list of the chemicals present in the facility.
  • Properly label chemicals in the workplace.
  • Maintain safety data sheets and make them available to employees.
  • Train workers on the standard and the specific chemical hazards to which they are exposed.

All these steps can feel like a real headache for many employers.

Compliance is expected to remain on OSHA’s radar with its recent adoption of the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) which has brought to the HazCom standard important changes and fast approaching deadlines. Interestingly, OSHA says the biggest issue it is seeing in the adoption of the HazCom standard post-GHS, is the extent to which companies were not compliant with the pre-GHS version of the rules.

GHS adoption also brings big HazCom changes to safety data sheets. Under GHS, all safety data sheets in the United States are required to be updated by chemical manufacturers and distributors by June 1, 2015.

In the wake of GHS adoption, and in light of the fact safety data sheets are a key element for meeting all of the requirements of HazCom compliance, here are five tips for improving your safety data sheet (SDS) management.

Get Motivated—Know What’s Coming

This is the calm before the storm. Starting no later than June 1, 2015, every new chemical shipment in the United States will be required to be preceded or accompanied by a safety data sheet in the GHS format. Employers with hundreds or thousands of hazardous chemical products in their facilities should be expecting an influx of new and updated SDSs, which could create logistical problems. Each new or updated document will need to be cataloged and shared with the appropriate workers.

A small percentage of chemical manufacturers have already updated their SDSs; however, a significant number of chemical blenders are expected to miss the deadline. These manufacturers are waiting on upstream vendors to make updates before they will be able to follow suit. The delay means employers who use hazardous chemicals are going to have to remain vigilant for an extended period of time beyond the deadline to ensure all updated SDSs are received.

Now is the time for employers to prepare for the influx of new safety data sheets and put processes into place for ensuring new chemical hazard information is passed along to workers via training and SDS access.

Designate a Point Person for SDS Management

More than simply a good idea, this is one of the things an OSHA inspector will be looking for when visiting a facility covered by the HazCom standard. In OSHA’s Small Entity Compliance Guide for Employers That Use Hazardous Chemicals, the agency says that, to ensure employers have a current SDS for each chemical in their facility, inspectors will be looking for the following items:

  • Designation of person(s) responsible for obtaining and maintaining the SDSs.
  • Information on how SDSs are maintained in the workplace and how workers can obtain access to them when they are in their work area during the work shift.
  • Procedures to follow when the SDS is not received at the time of the first shipment.
  • An SDS for each hazardous chemical in the workplace, and training of workers that includes review of SDS format and use.

During an inspection, OSHA will want to see companies are making a good-faith effort to safeguard employees. What determines whether a company is compliant or not—or whether an infraction results in a penalty or warning—often comes down to the discretion of the inspector. Designating employees to manage important aspects of the HazCom program can signal an employer’s commitment to safety and provide the context for an inspector to make a favorable judgment.

Take Advantage of New SDS Management Tools

Three-ring binders were once cutting-edge safety data sheet management technology; employers had no choice but to manage compliance with manual paper systems. Then in the 1990s, electronic management became a viable option for companies with significant resources and robust technology teams. Today, cloud-based SDS management solutions have gotten more powerful and affordable, allowing companies of all sizes to benefit from electronic safety data sheet management.

The best electronic solutions reduce the amount of time employers spend maintaining documents, make it easy for workers to access critical safety information from any Internet connected device, help track chemical containers throughout a facility, provide real-time chemical inventory access to first responders, and assist with complex regulatory reporting and cross-referencing tasks.

A good system, backed by a company that aggressively procures new and updated safety data sheets, can also help automate the updating of SDS libraries in the face of GHS. With these systems, incoming safety data sheets in the new GHS format are easily flagged and filtered.

Archive Old Safety Data Sheets with Care

OSHA Standard 29 CFR, 1910.1020, Access to Employee Exposure and Medical Records, requires employers to maintain safety data sheets or some record of the identity of the chemical, where and when it was used, for 30 years beyond the end-use date.

Preserving a safety data sheet satisfies the standard; however, so does a thorough chemical inventory list with specific date and location information. In other words, if a company chooses to keep the safety data sheet, that is all of the information they must retain. If they choose not to keep the SDS, then additional information about where and when the chemical was used is required.

The information on the SDS can be instrumental in assisting former employees in diagnosing issues that may arise from exposure. It can also help indemnify the employer by providing a snapshot of what was (and what was not) understood about a hazard at the time of a worker’s employment. If location information is kept, that information may be used to challenge employee exposure.

A great best practice is to retain both the safety data sheet as well as information about when and where it was used. A good electronic SDS management system can easily handle this task without necessitating the storing of thousands of paper documents for many years.

Train Employees on Effective SDS Use

The HazCom standard requires employees to have access to safety data sheets in their work areas; however, in too many workplaces, SDS management is an end unto itself. The real power of safety data sheets is unlocked when workers are trained to use them thoughtfully in the course of their work. With proper employee training and motivation, safety data sheets can serve as the backbone of chemical safety and drive HazCom compliance.

Employees empowered to use safety data sheets can make better personal choices regarding personal protective equipment and other hazard controls. They can also help mitigate the risk of exposure in the event of an accident. Employers should provide employees with easy access to safety data sheets and communicate expectations that workers should refer to SDSs in the course of their workday. Such actions can ensure the proper handling of chemicals throughout the chemical’s lifecycle, including during storage and waste disposal.

Now Is the Time for SDS Management

With so many changes ahead and so many benefits to be gained from them, the time to get a handle on SDS management is now. It can transform the workplace and stave off coming HazCom challenges related to OSHA’s adoption of GHS. The good news is, there are lots of resources available to employers needing assistance with their SDSs, and technology exists that can transform this pain point into a competitive advantage on the safety side. SDS management and GHS adoption are not challenges employers have to face alone.

Glenn Trout is president of MSDSonline®, a Chicago-based company that develops on-demand products and services that make it easier to access, manage and deploy safety data sheets and other critical safety information.​

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