What's the problem with Safety Data Sheets?

How Safety Data Sheets Fall Short on Safety

When confronted with a toxic substance on the job, many workers rely on the “Safety Data Sheet” (SDS) to inform them of the substance’s hazards. However, many SDSs have inaccurate or missing information, leaving workers uninformed and at risk.

Every year, an estimated 50,000 workers --- 10 times the number that die from an occupational injury --- die from a disease caused by exposures in their workplace.  With an estimated 650,000 chemical products on the market – and hundreds of new ones being introduced annually – about 32 million workers confront potentially dangerous chemical exposure in the workplace.

Background: What is an SDS?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Hazard Communication Standard requires chemical manufacturers and distributors to provide Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for every hazardous chemical to users to “communicate information on these hazards.” SDSs include general information about the chemical, identification, intended uses, hazards, composition, first-aid measures, firefighting measures, accidental release measures, handling and storage, permissible exposure limits and thresholds, personal protective equipment, physical and chemical properties, stability and reactivity, and toxicology information.

In 2012, OSHA revised its Hazard Communication Standard to adopt the Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labeling (GHS) – an international system used in many countries for determining the hazards of chemicals and to warn users of chemicals about those hazards through labels and data sheets. MSDSs were replaced by Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) which have a more consistent format and include internationally recognized hazard symbols. But the chemical manufacturer ultimately decides what to put in the SDS about the hazard of the chemicals in the product ---- without any government oversight to assure accuracy and reliability. 

SDSs often contain inaccurate or missing information.

According to a 2008 study, between 30 to 100% of products analyzed contained chemicals not declared on an SDS. “Accuracy and completeness were found to be relatively poor, with the majority of studies presenting evidence that the SDSs under review did not contain information on all the chemicals present, including those known to be serious sensitizers or carcinogens.” Some ingredients, such as those in fragrances, are exempt under patent laws regardless of toxicity. Furthermore, chemicals were also found at higher concentrations than what the SDS listed. The consistent format on the new Safety Data Sheets do not assure that the information in the new format will be any more accurate. 

Penalties for inaccurate or missing information on an SDS are too low.

Maximum fines are no more than $30,000, “and actual fines would probably be significantly smaller.” For example, a Florida distributor of a hair straightening product was fined only $12,600 for “failing to ensure that material safety data sheets reflected the content of formaldehyde in [its] products or the hazards associated with formaldehyde exposure.” OSHA categorized this violation as serious, meaning “there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result.” Problematically, “these fines are too small to incentive companies to more accurately disclose toxic ingredients.”

SDS are only required to be in English.

SDSs are “difficult for workers with limited English proficiency to understand,” and there is no requirement to provide non-English speakers with information in their native language. However, per federal OSHA, it is your right to "receive workplace safety and health training in a language you understand." As a result, some employers “may maintain copies in other languages,” but this is not always the case.