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Deciphering The Data

August 23, 2012
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Material safety data sheets (MSDSs) are found in just about every janitorial closet, are available online or in print with every cleaning chemical sold in North America and, if an accident or emergency occurs, can provide critical — even lifesaving — information to help minimize or rectify the problem.

And, while most cleaning professionals are aware of what they are and — it is hoped — where they are stored in the facilities they clean, few really know how to read a MSDS, what type of information is included or how it can help in an emergency.

This lack of knowledge was certainly not the goal of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which requires a MSDS be provided for every chemical used in the country — a program that is replicated in many countries around the world.

OSHA wants employers and building managers to go far beyond just providing a MSDS: They want the worker and all those involved in the handling of cleaning chemicals to know how to read a MSDS and be able to easily and quickly access the information included in one.

A MSDS contains a considerable amount of information for the health and safety of workers using cleaning chemicals.

It does not necessarily list all of the ingredients in a product; instead, it lists those ingredients that are deemed potentially harmful to people or the environment if the amount is over a certain concentration.

Further, there is no specific format, so a MSDS from one manufacturer may look different from a MSDS provided by another.

However, following the lead of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a 16-section standard has evolved that is voluntarily accepted by many chemical manufacturers.


Some form of a MSDS has been used for thousands of years.

In fact, printed on the walls of some 4,000-year-old Egyptian tombs are pharmaceutical descriptions of the ingredients and materials used in the treatment of the various diseases prevalent at the time.

The information included the names of these early medications, what ingredients were used, how to store them and warnings against improper use and application.

In other words, it was much of the same information found on a MSDS today.

Over the centuries, "chemical data sheets" were included with many substances, which included information indicating how to respond to a variety of problems should they occur using the product.

A downside of these data sheets was that there was no standardization.

The information provided varied and the labels often looked different; some contained lots of valuable information on how to handle an injury or emergency, while others provided little value.

In 1958, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring specific safety information on a variety of chemicals manufactured in the U.S.

In the 1970s and 1980s, more laws and regulations went into effect that further detailed and broadened what was to be included in MSDSs, especially those used for cleaning.

Now, MSDSs have gone global, many looking similar to those used in the U.S. notwithstanding where the chemical was manufactured.

The Essentials

The easiest way to understand how to use a MSDS is to be aware of what is included. Though only a partial list, these are some of the key sections:

• Product and company information

This includes such basics as the name of the manufacturer, contact information, a description of the common uses of the product and some ingredient information.

• Hazards identification

This section lists the names of potentially hazardous ingredients in the product by weight or volume as well as information as to what would be considered a lethal dose, a lethal concentration and a permissible exposure level.

It is important to note that full ingredient disclosure is not required on a MSDS. Only those ingredients considered hazardous, those used in a quantity greater than one percent or are known to be carcinogens, mutagens and teratogens used in quantities greater than 0.1 percent need be listed.

• Physical and chemical properties

This clarifies whether the product is a liquid, a solid or a vapor and notes its distinctive color or appearance, its freezing and boiling points and how fast it will evaporate.

• Toxicological information

One of the most important factors, this section covers acute and chronic health effects and symptoms that can result from using the product.

It also indicates whether the product can interfere with normal cell and organ development and if there are any reactions that occur when the chemical is combined with others.

• First aid measures

This section discusses how to deal with an accident or emergency situation involving the product.

Promoting Safety

Cleaning professionals should know that a MSDS on a product does not last forever.

It must be updated every three years or whenever there are significant changes, such as the addition or removal of an ingredient that could be hazardous.

Because of this, it is important to check to see how old a MSDS is.

If several years have passed or formulations have altered, MSDSs may no longer be valid for products in your custodial closet.

In addition, because the intent of a MSDS is for the users of chemicals to be able to read them and know what they include, it is often a good idea to have regular meetings with cleaning workers and review them in detail.

Ultimately, MSDSs are designed to help foster a safe working environment for all building occupants — not only for cleaning professionals.

For more information about MSDS compliance, including detailed information about each of the 16 sections, visit

Mike Sawchuk has been involved with the professional cleaning industry for more than 15 years with a focus on environmentally friendly, green cleaning. He is vice president and general manager of Enviro-Solutions Ltd. based in Ontario, Canada.

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