What Makes an MSDS Useful?

PLC Probe

The people using a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) generally are those that work with a material and include health care providers, emergency care responders, and the general public as consumers.

MSDS authors must consider what information these individuals need as well as what content is required by regulatory agencies.

Regulatory agencies specify that an MSDS contain certain facts that usually fall into sections such as manufacturer and contact information; identity and composition; precautions for use, handling, storage, and disposal; first aid and other emergency procedures; etc.

Putting aside the legal requirements for a moment, consider the pragmatic aspects of an MSDS. Essentially, regulatory groups want an MSDS to provide all the data needed by people who handle, use, or otherwise encounter the material to do so safely.

Returning to the legal requirements, the Chemical Mfrs. Assn. developed a suggested list of sections for an MSDS:

  • Chemical product and company ID
  • Composition and data on ingredients
  • Identification of hazards
  • First aid measures
  • Fire fighting measures
  • Accidental release measures
  • Handling and storage
  • Exposure controls and personal protection
  • Physical and chemical properties
  • Stability and reactivity
  • Toxicological information
  • Ecological information
  • Disposal techniques
  • Transportation considerations
  • Regulatory information
  • Miscellaneous information
Data on an MSDS must be completely accurate and honest. It must be sufficient but not include excessive or extraneous information.

A common story about an MSDS involves a document for distilled water. It warned the user not to allow the material to enter the eyes. In case of accidental eye contact, the MSDS advised the user to flush the eyes copiously with water.

Obviously, someone who was not very knowledgeable simply copied a common statement that appears on the MSDS for many chemical materials into the one for distilled water.

The author of an MSDS should follow a version of the golden rule: Provide all the information on the material you would like to have if you had to treat someone who might have ingested the material, clean a spill of the material, or handle any other mishap.

All ingredients should be identified honestly, although this may sometimes seem to compromise the secrecy of a key ingredient. Disguising or omitting a component of a material on an MSDS for the sake of secrecy is unacceptable.

If a supplier writing an MSDS thinks the identification of an ingredient would “give the store away,” perhaps the best approach is to find another way to achieve the performance this ingredient provides.

The content of an MSDS should be easy to read and comprehend. Remember that the people using an MSDS in an emergency situation are not necessarily trained chemists, toxicologists, medical personnel, or the like. Most often they will be lay people with an immediate difficulty to resolve.

David J. Bentley Jr. is a recognized industry expert in polymers, laminations, and coatings with more than 30 years of experience in R&D and technical service. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

To read more of David J. Bentley’s PLC Probe columns, visit our PLC Probe Archives.

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