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Material Safety Data Sheets



Ever since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began requiring chemical manufacturers in our industry (and others) to supply their customers with material safety data sheets (MSDSs), these documents have been surrounded by misunderstanding and confusion. As the name implies, MSDSs are meant to provide information that allows printers to use hazardous materials safely and avoid risks to their personal health.

Ever since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began requiring chemical manufacturers in our industry (and others) to supply their customers with material safety data sheets (MSDSs), these documents have been surrounded by misunderstanding and confusion. As the name implies, MSDSs are meant to provide information that allows printers to use hazardous materials safely and avoid risks to their personal health. In our industry, they are required for a wide assortment of chemicals, including screen-cleaning and reclaiming products, printing inks and coatings, solvents, frame adhesives, and more. The problem is that the unfamiliar chemical terminology, complex descriptions of chemical properties, and ambiguous regulatory acronyms found in most MSDSs can make it difficult to ascertain what these documents really mean and how they should be used in a screen-printing operation. Additionally, many shops don’t realize how MSDSs fit in with other regulatory obligations they’re required to meet for worker health and safety. In this article, we’ll attempt to demystify MSDSs and the issues surrounding their use. Whose responsibility? When it comes to ensuring that employees who handle hazardous chemicals have a complete understanding of the health and safety issues surrounding these materials, most of the burden falls on the employer. Maintaining complete and current MSDSs is part of this burden. But the responsibility is shared with the manufacturers and suppliers of the hazardous materials, who must supply accurate MSDSs and keep them up-to-date. These health and safety obligations are spelled out in the "Right to Know" regulations of OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR.1910.1200). The Standard and the requirements it imposes are described in detail on OSHA’s Website at According to the Standard, "Chemical manufacturers and importers shall obtain or develop an MSDS for each hazardous chemical they produce or import." And it requires manufactures and suppliers to send their customers updated MSDSs as new product data becomes available. As for the requirements OSHA imposes on screen printers, the Standard says, "Employers shall have an MSDS in the workplace for each hazardous chemical which they use." If the appropriate MSDS is not on hand by the time a hazardous material is delivered by the supplier, it is the employer’s responsibility to acquire it in the most expedient manner possible. The function of MSDSs To the average screen printer who glances over an MSDS, the document may seem far too technical and, frequently, making sense of the information provided is viewed as too time consuming to attempt during the typical, hectic workday. Don’t let the language and scope of MSDSs mislead you, though. The documents represent a wealth of health and safety information, and they provide added insurance against employee injury or death. MSDSs have two major functions: 1) conveying product information that conforms to guidelines established by the Occupational Safety and Health Association under the Hazard Communication Standard; and 2) enabling those in contact with hazardous materials to understand health, safety, and cautionary issues associated with the materials. Interpreting an MSDS Even if they describe the same type of product, no two MSDSs from different manufacturers are alike. Some manufacturers offer much more information than OSHA requires. Others provide just basic data. But regardless of the level of detail they provide, every MSDS is required to divulge key product details that can impact employee health and safety. The product information must be categorized and organized under headings such as the following. material identification hazardous ingredients chemical/physical properties fire and explosion data reactivity data health-hazard data emergency and first-aid procedures special protection information handling and usage guidelines regulatory and Department of Transportation (DOT) shipping information The following descriptions look at each of these categories individually, identifying what type of information you can expect to find and how to decipher it. Material identification An MSDS must clearly identify the material and its manufacturer. What you’ll find on a typical form is the trade name of the product (as it appears on the product label), product number used by the manufacturer, chemical family or common name, and "material use of occurrence" (i.e., the common use of the product). Manufacturer contact information is also required, as is the date on which the MSDS document was created or last updated. An emergency contact telephone number should also be listed as a resource in case of a chemical spill, leak, fire, employee exposure, or other accident. The emergency number may be the manufacturer’s own emergency response line, or it may be the number of an independent organization, such as CHEMTREC, which specializes in chemical disasters. Codes pertaining to the National Paint and Coating Association’s Hazardous Materials Identification System (HMIS), which are already familiar to many printers, are also provided. These codes provide a quick reference system to establish health, flammability, reactivity levels, and special concerns, all of which are rated on a 0-4 scale, where "4" is most severe. Hazardous ingredients The document provides the chemical name and chemical abstract number (CAS No.) of each of the hazardous materials the product comprises. It also will list the OSHA permissible exposure limits (PEL) for each of the hazardous components, defining thresholds or exposure levels at which the material is considered dangerous to worker health. Similarly, it will contain American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists/Threshold Limit Values (ACGIH/TLV), which detail whether or not the chemical is hazardous to the skin, eyes, respiratory system, etc. Depending on the nature of the product that the MSDS sheet describes, the hazardous-ingredients portion of the document may list specific components of the chemical mixture. Alternately, it may identify the mixture as proprietary and withhold details on its specific makeup if it qualifies as a "trade secret" under OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard. Still, any details about hazards relating to the proprietary chemical must be divulged if it poses a legitimate health and safety concern and/or if the information is required by medical personnel. Chemical/physical properties MSDSs provide information that can help fire fighters or other emergency-response personnel select the right materials and methods for dealing with a spill, fire, or injured worker in the event an accident involving the chemical. These details include chemical and physical properties, such as boiling point, vapor pressure, vapor density, solubility in water, pH, specific gravity, melting point, evaporation rate, appearance, and odor. Fire and explosion data This information covers the flammability and flash point of the material. Fire hazards associated with the chemical are also described, and so are the types of extinguishing materials that should be used in case of a fire or explosion, such as foam, CO2, water, or dry chemicals. Special fire-fighting guidelines are presented. For example, the MSDS might recommend the use of a self-contained breathing apparatus for anyone fighting a fire that involves this chemical. Reactivity data Hazards relating to potential chemical reactions with the material are also presented. The document will characterize the chemical stability of the material, identifying its potential for developing a hazardous reaction. A section on incompatibility will list other types of chemicals (oxidizers, bases, acids, etc.) that the material should not be allowed to come into contact with and conditions (heat, open flame, etc.) that it should not be exposed to. The MSDS also identifies whether you can expect "hazardous polymerization," meaning that the material will react on its own and produce heat that could possibly rupture its container. And it describes "hazardous decomposition products," such as carbon monoxide (CO) and other dangerous gases, toxic fumes, or additional byproducts that are released into the air or water in the event of a fire or exposure to an another chemical. Health-hazard data Employees must be aware of the short-and long-term health factors associated with exposure to the chemicals they routinely work with, so an MSDS is required to provide signs and symptoms of overexposure to the chemical and the types of medical conditions that can result or be aggravated by exposure. It details the effects of long-term inhalation or ingestion, and the effects on skin and eyes. It also lists chronic effects of overexposure. If the material or any of its chemical components are identified as known carcinogens by any of three sources–the International Agency for Research on Cancer, National Toxicology Program Annual Report on Carcinogens, or OSHA–it must be noted on the MSDS. Emergency and first-aid procedures Related to "health hazards," the document will provide guidance for treating those who have received a hazardous exposure through inhalation, skin contact, eye contact, or ingestion. It is very important that emergency technicians or other medical personnel are provided this information in the event of an accident. Special protection information You’ll also find details on protective measures that users should take to avoid harm when working with the material. Information provided will include protective clothing that should be worn, venting requirements for areas where the chemical is used, and eye protection that should be worn. Handling guidelines published by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the testing arm of OSHA, are often referenced as well. Precautions for safe handling and use An MSDS lists steps and precautions that should be taken in case a material is released or spilled. It identifies that the chemical must be disposed of in a way that conforms to all applicable regulations. And it outlines a variety of general precautions that cover child safety, containment, handling, and use. Regulatory and DOT Shipping Information (optional) This information is generally provided by chemical suppliers as a courtesy to their customers–it is not mandatory. The MSDS might outline the DOT’s labeling requirements and list Superfund Amendment Reauthorization Act Title 111 classifications for the material, which are required by the Environmental Protect Agency for toxic chemical release reporting. Transportation requirements and hazard classifications pertaining to specific state regulations may also appear. In some cases, the MSDS may list the product name under which the material is shipped. Using MSDSs correctly Maintaining the sheets. The Standard requires that you designate one or more people to be responsible for obtaining and maintaining MSDSs for every hazardous chemical in the workplace. Part of this person’s responsibility will be to develop a procedure for keeping all MSDSs up to date. The list of hazardous chemicals the Standard requires you keep can also be used as a checklist to help you make sure that you have all the data sheets you require, and that you add new ones as the list grows. Identifying the person responsible for MSDSs in your operation on all purchase orders can help ensure that you get new sheets as you add new products. Your company’s MSDS manager(s) also must make sure that the documents are located where employees can easily access them. Binders containing the sheets in all relevant work areas are one popular approach. The key is that employees can get to the information when they need it. Employee information and training The requirement to make MSDSs readily available to employees ties in with the Hazard Communication Standard’s employee training provisions. Under the standard, employees that may be exposed to hazardous chemicals must be educated about the materials and the hazards associated with them before their first assignment to work with the chemicals, which is why it’s important to have MSDSs in place when a hazardous material that’s new to your operation first arrives. Employees may be informed about chemicals and hazards on a chemical-by-chemical basis, or by categories of hazards. Due to the number of hazardous chemicals found in most screen-printing shops, however, category-based training is most practical. The MSDSs you maintain complement this training by providing substance-specific information, so it’s important to teach employees how to read these documents as part of your training program. Also note that while the Standard only requires that the MSDS be available in English, you should also make translated copies available for those portions of your workforce that don’t speak English as a first language. The right thing to do Success and profitability are the "bottom line" for any business, but no business will achieve them unless its employees are treated fairly and respectfully in a safe working environment. If employees are informed, appreciated, and safe, then productivity is high and achieving the bottom line becomes a shared goal. From the top down, this ethic must be evident and adhered to. One of the primary ways to achieve this goal is to create a workplace environment and culture focused on employee health and safety. Whether yours is a two-person shop or large printing conglomerate, safety is the sum and substance that keeps your business afloat. Its importance can be relayed to employees in a variety of ways, but especially through comprehensive efforts to provide the training and information OSHA mandates. By offering instruction and interpretation of MSDSs in conjunction with employee training, companies demonstrate their commitment to employees and achieve the success they deserve. Authors’ note: Aside from MSDS information that you can obtain via the OSHA Website mentioned in this article, the Screenprinting and Graphic Imaging Association International (SGAI), Fairfax, VA, also provides a wealth of information and training materials designed to help printers implement effective health and safety programs. Through it’s government affairs department, the SGIA works to encourage suppliers to adopt a standardized MSDS format that is consistent and user friendly. For more information, contact SGIA at 703-385-1335 or visit its Website at

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