SDS - Safety Data Sheets

Unfortunately, it is indeed a fact that sooner or later life will kill you. Every day we routinely face risks, including many dangers on the job site. Some risks are obvious, falling objects, falls from heights, injury from moving scenery & crates. Care and safe working habits can help with these.

However, we also face less obvious health dangers at work from chemicals and materials. Paints contain toxic pigments. Chemicals may blister skin or soak through to the bloodstream. Solvents can poison organs and the nervous system. Sprays have toxic gases. Dusts and fumes may be both toxic and carcinogenic.

The Federal government has actually done something to help protect workers, and that is OSHA.

OSHA requires that the employer provide workers with information on health hazards, AND provide the means to stay healthy. When it comes to chemicals, the information we need is provided, originally through Material Safety Data Sheets, or MSDS, and currently through SDS or Safety Data Sheets, so we can know what to do to protect ourselves. SDS tell us the recognized hazards of the chemicals we work with, the required procedures and Personal Protective Equipment, or PPEs (eye protection, masks, gloves, spray booths for spray paint, dyes and chemicals), which are supposed to be provided by our employers for our protection.


To know what precautions to take, you must know what you're up against. Chemical health hazards break down into categories:
Acute, chronic, Sensitization and Carcinogenic.

Let us consider a common and familiar chemical to which many of us have been exposed: Grain Alcohol. This product is of course the "active ingredient" in alcoholic beverages, but it is also a common industrial solvent. Let us look at it as a chemical:

Acute effects of grain alcohol:
Low levels of exposure may not be felt at all, but even low levels will usually cause a slight narcosis. You feel a little tipsy. Higher levels of exposure can cause more severe effects, headache, nausea, loss of coordination, and finally unconsciousness and even death.

All this from a fairly benign solvent. Other solvents, even closely related ones like wood alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and glycol, will cause similar but FAR MORE toxic effects for a given amount. Many, including grain alcohol, can be absorbed right through the skin. They may target different organs. All attack the brain, liver and kidneys, but wood alcohol quickly targets and destroys the optic nerve, making you go blind, and glycol destroy the liver almost immediately, and a small amount can be deadly.

So, sometimes acute effects go away, sometimes they cause long term damage, and sometimes they can kill.

Chronic effect of grain alcohol: Long term exposure includes cirosos or hardening of the liver, and brain damage causing dementia.

A single binge with alcohol may make you sick for a night, but leave no permanent damage.
Chronic drinking can cause organ damage and will eventually kill you.

Sensitizing agents: will cause various allergic reactions which may be quite individual; may take the form of dermatitis (skin rashes, hives, and blisters), respiratory reactions (similar to hay fever), and even anaphylactic shock, a severe reaction which can close off the airways, and even cause death. Sensitizing agents can exhibit chronic effects; they may not show up until there have been several exposures, and then will show increasingly severe reactions on subsequent exposures. Also, once you have been sensitized to one chemical, you will likely become more easily sensitized to others as well, and you MAY ultimately become sensitive to almost everything!

Carcinogens are a special class because they cause cancer cells to develop, which are a mutation of normal cells. There is NO SAFE LEVEL of exposure to carcinogens. One molecule in just the right place and time can cause a cancer. Generally speaking, the greater the exposure the more likely that cancer will develop. But there is no way to tell either way.

A single dose of a carcinogen may kill, or a lifetime exposure may do nothing.

Routes of Entry

There are many ways chemicals can get into you. Some chemicals may be absorbed through the skin and the eyes. Many that produce fumes and vapors may be breathed in and enter the bloodstream through the lungs. They may also be ingested, swallowed and absorbed through the digestive system. This will not only occur if you eat the product, but fumes, dusts and vapors can also fall onto or be absorbed by food and beverages in or near the work area, and then subsequently be eaten or drunk. This is why it is not a good idea to store or consume food and beverages in or near the immediate work area.

How do you protect yourself? Check the SDS.

SDS are a form OSHA requires manufacturers to fill out. Like many government forms, it requires a lot of information which may or may not be useful, and does take practice to read. But once you learn how, they do make sense.


OSHA is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and was established under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. OSHA requires manufacturers to provide Safety Data Sheets upon request. Based on the principle of the "Worker's Right to Know", SDS are a government mandated form which OSHA requires that manufacturers fill out and provide upon request. SDS provide a summary of information needed to handle, store and use a product safely, and how to deal with exposure, spills and other problems if they occur. SDS must be supplied upon request from the supplier, and must be in a standardized form

The SDS is actually the latest version of this type of form. Until 2014, this information was provided by the MSDS, or Material Safety Data Sheet. OSHA adopted the Golbally Harmonized System, or GHS, which aligns the US requirements with a world wide standard. The SDS and the ANSI form of the MSDS are almost identical, and the MSDS will be valid for some time. After Jan 1, 2014 the SDS became the official form that manufacturers must use, and the MSDS is gradually being replaced.

Like many government forms, SDS contain a lot of information which may or may not be useful, and they take practice to read. An SDS is supposed to include information required by everyone who handles the material after it leaves the manufacturer, from the shippers to the factory worker to the disposal agency. So not everything in it will be relevant to every user. You must winnow out the information YOU require.

To make reading them easier, SDS are divided into sections, and use specific terms and definitions defined by OSHA. The information is presented in specific order and format. Broadly, they answer the following questions:


HEALTH HAZARDS: How can it hurt you?

PHYSICAL HAZARDS: What else can go wrong (and how can you prevent them)?

PREVENTION: What can you do about it?

TREATMENT: What if something goes wrong?
What is First aid and treatment for exposure?
How do you handle accidental spills or release?

Reading an SDS/MSDS

Each SDS/MSDS is divided into standardized Sections. Here is a guide to the information to be found in each section:

SDS Sections

Section 1. Chemical product and company identification. Links the SDS to the material. Identifies the supplier of the SDS. Identifies a source for more information.
Health hazards and treatment
Section 2. Hazards identification, inc. emergency overview
Emergency overview.
Signal word and hazard symbols
Words: Danger

Oxidizers Flammables Explosives Acutely toxic Corrosives


or special

Potential adverse human health effects.
Symptoms from use and misuse of material.

Section 3.
Composition/information on ingredients
Chemical identity. Common name and synonyms.
Lists the OSHA hazardous components May also list significant nonhazardous components. May also include additional information about components (e.g., exposure guidelines)

“Proprietary” listings: beware

TLV´s: Threshhold Limit Values
Tolerable, NOT “safe” levels of exposure
Developed by government hygenists

"Non-toxic" vs. "LD-50"

TLV-TWA: Time Weighted Average
8 hr./day; 40 hr./wk
TLV-STEL: Short Term Exposure Level
based on 15 min. exposure
TLV-C: Ceiling Limit
Never exceed, even a moment!

PEL: Permitted Exposure Level
Developed by OSHA based on TLV´s and other industry standards

Enforced by OSHA
TLV´s are NOT

Section 4. First aid measures
Instructions for accidental exposure requiring immediate treatment.
Instructions to medical professionals.
Physical hazards and precautions

Section 5. Fire fighting measures
 Basic fire fighting guidance, including appropriate extinguishing media.
Other fire and explosive properties useful to avoid and fight fires involving material.

E.g. flash point (the minimum tempurature at which a material will burn with ignition source present) or

Flammability/explosive limits (the min. and max. concentrations in air that will burn/explode).

Safe Handling Procedures

Section 6. Accidental release measures
Actions to minimize adverse effects of accidental spill, leak or release of material.

Section 7. Handling and storage
Information on safe handling and storage.
Personal Protection

Section 8. Exposure controls/personal protection
Practices, equipment, or both, useful in minimizing worker exposure.
Exposure guidelines.
Guidance on personal protective equipment.

Section 9. Physical and chemical properties 
Additional data to help characterize material and to design safe work practices.

Section 10. Stability and reactivity 
Describes conditions to be avoided or other materials that may cause a reaction changing intrinsic stability of material.

Appearance: what it looks like under "normal" conditions.

Boiling, melting, freezing points

Vapor pressure: how dense vapors get above the liquid in a closed container, expressed as a percentage of air.

Vapor density: how much the vapor weighs compared to the same amount of air.

Specific Gravity: how heavy it is compared to an equal VOLUME of water (s.g. of 1). SG over 1 is heavier than water, less than 1 is ligher than water.

Evaporation rate: how fast it evaporates compared to a common industrial solvent, either ether or byutl

Section 11. Toxicological information 
Provides background toxicological information on the material, its compounds, or both.

Section 12. Ecological information
Provides information on effects of material on plants, animals and on the material's environmental fate.

Section 13. Disposal considerations 
Information useful in determining appropriate disposal measures.
Additional Information

Section 14. Transport information
Basic shipping classification information.
Specific transportation labels if required.

Section 15. Regulatory information
Any additional information on regulations affecting the material.

Section 16. Other information
May be used to provide any additional information.

Alcohol (in SDS format)

Elmer's Glue (in ANSI format)

Barge All-Purpose Cement (in OSHA format)

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Copyright © 2002, 2013, 2020 Mick Alderson