• Gary Clarkson

Three steps to heaven or "How to read a safety data sheet for those without a chemistry degree"

As clients and project managers we often insist that our contractors bring copies of the safety data sheets for the chemicals that they are using.

But how many of us actually know how to interpret them?

Sad to say, but in my experience most peoples eyes glaze over when they are asked what the safety data sheet document is telling them to do.

So for everyone who uses chemicals or who engages contractors who use chemicals, here is how to get the information you need from a safety data sheet (SDS).

Step 1.

First of all its crucial that the SDS is current and up to date and complies with New Zealand requirements.

Key criteria that indicate your SDS is up to date are:

The supplier of the chemical is obliged to ensure that they supply you with a SDS that meets these requirements and you have a legal duty to obtain it.

Step 2.

You need to keep copies of the SDS with your inventory and they need to be readily available to people who need them.

Everyone using the chemicals needs to read and understand the risks and how to control them.

As the person in control of the work, you need to satisfy yourself that the people using the chemicals are taking the correct steps.

Are they doing what the SDS says they need to?

How do you know ?

Step 3.

All sections of the SDS are important, but some are more immediately important to those using the product than others. Pay attention to:

Section 1

What the substance is called, who makes it and the emergency number if something happens are pretty important.

It would amaze you how many people have the wrong SDS for what they are using. Particularly where the same manufacturer produces similar sounding products.

Make sure what is written on the tin matches the paperwork.

Section 2.

What is hazardous about the substance and what precautions need to be taken?

It seems pretty obvious, but what are the risks with using this substance ?

What precautions do we need to take?

As the person in control of the work, you ned to be sure that the precautions are in place and are being followed.

Section 4.

What first aid measures need to be taken.

It's critical to ensure that what may be required is readily available or can be easily achieved.

For example if the work is in an isolated spot in the heart of the building and in an emergency the person needs to be given fresh air.

How are you going to achieve that?

It's too late if an incident occurs to find out you don’t have the eye wash or other things you need to prevent further harm.

This is why it's so important to review the SDS as part of your planning process to make sure your emergency pan is suitable and sufficient.

Section 5

Does the substance release toxic fumes if it ignites or what fire fighting measures would be needed in the event of a fire.

From a planning perspective you need to address these as part of your emergency arrangements.

Section 6

If a spill occurs is the substance safe for the environment or do we need to ensure that spills are contained?

Do you have the means to contain a spill should it occur? - If not, get them before work begins.

Section 7

If your storing this material on-site, it may need to be stored in a particular way. E.g if it's flammable, is it locked away in a fire proof cabinet and separated from oxidising materials when it's not being used?

When we are using the substance we need to know what handling precautions are needed. Do we need to avoid breathing the vapour or getting the product on our skin?

Section 8

Arguably the most important thing we need to know is the exposure controls and personal protection needed to use the material safely.

What engineering and/or environmental controls do you need?


what protective measures do the users need to employ when using it.

Section 10

Often overlooked is what happens if the material comes into contact with another substances or it is exposed to heat.

This could be the difference between a good and catastrophic outcome.

Section 13

Presumably you're not going to chuck it down drain, but what other things do you need to consider for waste materials etc?

Well that sure seems like heaven to me

Make life easier by condensing the SDS to highlight the information above.

This will make it easier to understand and will focus attention on the things which will prevent harm.

The use of chemicals can impact on health of the people using them and everyone else around them.

Safety data sheets tell you everything you need to know and more.

So take a bit of time to get them, read them and put the necessary things in place to mange the risk they present.

If you want to read more about the relationship between HSNO and GHS classifications or suffer from insomnia, try this or if you want to hear a classic tune of our time click here.

If you need help with anything discussed above, please do get in touch.

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