Office of Environmental Health & Safety

How do I read a Material Safety Data Sheet?

What items or formats are required on an MSDS?

It depends where you live. Each country has their own rules and regulations. For non-U.S. countries, see the International section of this FAQ.

For the United States, see our entry on OSHA in the MSDS HyperGlossary for the items that must be included on all U.S. MSDS's. You can include more items than OSHA requires. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has a 16-part standard format which encompasses the areas given in the OSHA standard and adds a few more such as toxicology. In fact, OSHA now recommends using the ANSI format!

What do these terms or abbreviations on my MSDS mean?

Simply visit our searchable MSDS HyperGlossary with explanations of hundreds of terms. Or, copy and paste your sheet into our MS-Demystifier and it will create a hyperlink entry for every term it recognizes in your MSDS!

Is there a unique identification code for each chemical?

Yes, see our entry on CAS Numbers in the MSDS HyperGlossary. While OSHA does not require the use of a unique code on MSDS's, it is a very good idea to include the CAS number(s) when possible.

The U.S. Department of Defense uses National Supply Numbers (NSN's) (and closely related NIIN numbers) to uniquely and permanently identify items that it purchases. Like CAS numbers, NSN's do not appear on all MSDS's.

EC Numbers (formerly known as EINECS or ELINCS numbers) are assigned to chemicals sold commercially in Europe, but this numbering system covers only ~100,000 chemicals.

UN/NA numbers are another identifying system used in transportation. However, there are only a few thousand UN/NA numbers assigned (out of 24 million+ known chemicals). UN/NA numbers are generally useful only for emergency personnel responding to transportation accidents.

Does OSHA determine what information is required under health hazard information or can we use our own data?

According to Appendix B of OSHA standard 1910.1200, subpart Z (Hazard determination: Mandatory):

The quality of a hazard communication program is largely dependent upon the adequacy and accuracy of the hazard determination. The hazard determination requirement of this standard is performance-oriented. Chemical manufacturers, importers, and employers evaluating chemicals are not required to follow any specific methods for determining hazards, but they must be able to demonstrate that they have adequately ascertained the hazards of the chemicals produced or imported in accordance with the criteria set forth in this Appendix.

It has been said that this portion of the HCS "puts the fox in charge of the henhouse."

Do I need to make a new MSDS if I mix several other chemicals together (each of which already has an MSDS)?

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) has several specific requirements including hazard determination and development of MSDS's. If you have a non-interacting mixture of components then you can simply make a new MSDS based on the sheets you already have. See this OSHA Interpretation titled "MSDS requirements for products that are composed of a mixture of non-interacting chemicals" and our MSDS HyperGlossary entry on mixtures for more information.

In most cases, the components will interact or chemically react to create another product. If so, a new MSDS must be constructed. This would most likely require professional assistance. See our MSDS Suppliers Page for some leads.

The sections of OSHA standard 1910.1200 that are most relevant to this question are section d and especially section g, in particular (g)(2)(i)(C).

If you have a complex mixture such as crude oil where the exact chemical composition may vary from batch to batch you can get away with one generic MSDS to cover a range of compositions. See these OSHA interpretations:

Do I have to write an MSDS for new chemicals that I create in the laboratory?

Generally, no. But if you plan on distributing these chemicals to others outside of your laboratory (for example, sending samples to other researchers), then you meet OSHA's definition of a chemical manufacturer and must create an MSDS for the materials. This is assuming the new chemical meets OSHA's definition of hazardous, which is a fairly good assumption for most chemicals. While this sounds daunting - creating an MSDS for a few grams of material nobody has ever made before and has myriad unknown properties, most of the information on your MSDS will simply read "Not known" or something similar. See the question Who can write an MSDS? for authoring tips.

This applies for any amount of material you may be wishing to send elsewhere. The HazCom Standard is based on whether on not a material is hazardous, not the risk associated with a given amount of hazardous material.

For an official OSHA interpretation on this see "Material safety data sheet requirements for experimental chemical mixtures that are shipped off-site" dated February 5, 2004.

As a distributor, can we change the name and address on an MSDS?

This is a common question from distributors and resellers who do not wish to reveal the identity of their original supplier out of fear that their customers will then purchase the product directly from the manufacturer.

A distributor or manufacturer may change the name and address information on the MSDS, however, by doing so they assume important legal responsibilities. According to this official interpretation letter:

In all cases, the "responsible party" named on the MSDS and the label is held responsible for the accuracy of the information and potentially subject to citation if a violation of the HCS was determined to exist. If the distributor makes changes to the required information on the labels and the MSDSs, the distributor then assumes responsibility.

OSHA expects the emergency contact to be able to provide information beyond that already contained in the sheet:

...in all cases, the party listed must be able to provide additional information on the hazardous chemicals, or clarification of the information on the MSDS, as well as, additional emergency procedures, if necessary, in lieu of the manufacturer. (see "Requirement of name, address and telephone number on an MSDS" and Material safety data sheet requirement of the Hazard Communication Standard").

If you issue an altered sheet and can't provide this information or the sheet is inaccurate, you may potentially face OSHA, civil and/or criminal penalties! We know of at least one case where altering a sheet landed a company in a lawsuit and strongly suggest that one seek legal counsel before issuing an altered sheet.

While we're not attorneys, it is clear that you need to do at least the following before issuing a sheet with your own name/contact information. First, ensure that the sheet is complete and accurate and document your efforts to do so. Do not simply assume that the information on a sheet that you decided to alter is correct. Second, ensure that you can provide the emergency contact assistance required; see this OSHA interpretation for a discussion of whether the contact telephone number needs to be available 24 hours per day.

Most companies do not have such expertise in-house, however, CHEMTREC can act as the 24-hour contact phone number and emergency assistance liaison for as little as $500 a year. Feel free to contact them at chemtrec@americanchemistry.com for more information. Be sure to tell them you were referred from our site (and that they should consider sponsoring it).

Can the identity of a chemical be withheld on an MSDS as a trade secret?

Yes, but the criteria are very demanding and there are certain responsibilities that come with such a claim. See our MSDS HypGlossary entry on trade secret for more information.

Who can write an MSDS?

Anyone can; simply check out the OSHA-required elements. Whether you have the expertise it takes to produce an accurate and complete sheet is another matter. In addition, you assume some significant legal responsibilities (see earlier in this section).

We strongly recommend that sheet authors purchase ANSI standard Z400.1-1998, "Hazardous Industrial Chemicals - Material Safety Data Sheets - Preparation". You can also find a book titled "Material Safety Data Sheets: The Writer's Desk Reference" on our MSDS-related books page.

You can find some excellent tips on writing an effective MSDS at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/hazardcommunications/hc2inf2.html. This 1997 study includes a finding that "one expert panel review established that only 11% of the MSDSs were found to be accurate in all of the following four areas: health effects, first aid, personal protective equipment, and exposure limits. Further, the health effects data on the MSDSs frequently are incomplete and the chronic data are often incorrect or less complete than the acute data". Therefore, while you can easily make a new MSDS for a common chemical (such as acetone) using another sheet as a template, be sure to triple check the information and document your effort!

Also examine Creating Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety - the tips in it are very useful even for non-Canadians and are good at delineating the various world formats.

For those who want to write or double check the information on their MSDS's, a great resource is the OSHA's Chemical Sampling Information Database. Here you'll find concise data on a large number of chemical substances that may be encountered in industrial hygiene investigations. It's not all the data you'll need, but it gives you a good start. The RTECS database is another good resource and contains toxicology information on over 140,000 compounds! Those writing sheets for the European market should check out the link to the European Chemical Bureau in our FAQ question on European MSDS requirements.

If you are interested in taking a professional MSDS authoring course, ChemADVISOR offers one for $1,500 (US).

Where does one submit MSDS's for official approval?

Nowhere. OSHA neither accepts MSDS's for review nor maintains a national database of MSDS's. In general, OSHA reviews MSDS content only during an investigation or inspection. This makes sense, as there are millions of MSDS's in circulation and OSHA has much better ways to use their rather limited resources.

The manufacturer, distributer, importer or other "responsible party" listed on the sheet is responsible for the accuracy and completeness of the information on the MSDS. See "Does OSHA determine what information is required under health hazard information or can we use our own data?" and "Are we protected from liability if someone is injured because an MSDS supplied to us is wrong but we had no way of knowing about the error?" elsewhere in this FAQ for more information.

OSHA has a handy Guide for Reviewing MSDS Completeness as well as numerous technical information resources available that can assist MSDS authors. Or you can always hire an experienced professional to write your MSDS's for you.

Are MSDS's copyrighted/copyrightable?

Disclaimer: we are not intellectual property attorneys etc., so this is our non-expert response to this question.

Manufacturers, distributors etc. are required to give MSDS's to downstream users at no charge so there is really no point in formally copyrighting them. In fact, given that most MSDS's follow a standard format and language, it is unlikely in most cases that one would be able to have an enforceable copyright. One could reasonably argue that most MSDS's are derivative of previous ones or that they simply constitute a list of facts, neither of which merits an enforceable copyright.

On the other hand, if one "gussies up" a sheet with a particular graphic design, organization, and other elements that represent original creative work, then the sheet (in that form) could theoretically be copyrighted. Of course, nothing prevents someone from extracting the basic scientific facts and printing them in a different form.

There are at least a few companies that produce MSDS's that do copyright their sheets. Whether that is an enforceable copyright is unclear. We are unaware of any successful litigation involving violation of an MSDS copyright.

See SIRI's site for another opinion. There are lots of other great web sites on copyright law; a quick search at Yahoo, Google, Teoma etc. should offer hundreds of possibilities.

Lastly, in deciding whether to copyright an MSDS, imagine a manufacturer being sued by a client who needed an MSDS that was required by law....but who couldn't get it because of a confusing copyright issue...and then there being an accident involving that material...and someone suffering great pain, injury or death. Could be quite ugly. From a legal stance (again, we're not attorneys), free and unfettered access to safety information may be the wisest choice.

Is there an XML standard for MSDS's?

XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language, an configurable extension of HTML, the language used to author web pages. XML permits industries to come up with a set of tags that define information content within a document, not just document structure. For example, in an MSDS, one could surround the address information with <address>...</address> tags or the CAS number with <cas>...</cas> tags. These tags would be invisible to the reader, but any computer reading the document could automatically extract (or insert) this information. That allows the data to be imported/exported to databases, cell phones, internet appliances etc. with no human intervention, and provides superior data access. We strongly support and encourage the development of an MSDS XML standard.

Last modified: Aug 7, 2013

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