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Deciphering Your Safety Data Sheets: 6 Steps to More Compliant Chemical Storage

Paul Smith
Paul Smith

What have years spent helping businesses achieve data compliance taught me about chemical storage legislation, and what can you learn from my experiences? 

For many years I worked in a different industry, guiding businesses safely through the legal implications of general data protection. Data protection is easy to overlook, but it mattered a great deal to my customers because they were responsible for keeping the data they held on their clients safe, and in a time when cybercrime is commonplace, their communication channels were just as vulnerable as the doors and windows to their physical premises.

Chemical compliance is a step away from data protection, but I’d call it a sidestep because understanding your regulatory obligations and the standards you should strive to maintain is no less important in the workyard, or on the factory floor. In these environments, where your operators are frequently decanting hazardous waste from drums or manoeuvring containers filled with flammable liquid in their dozens, compliance risks are costly in all kinds of ways.

The good news is, you have all the answers you need right there on-site in the form of data sheets. What are they, why are they so important, and how can deciphering what they say help you keep your operations compliant, the environment clean, and your people safe?


What is a data sheet?

A data sheet, also known as a material safety data sheet (MSDS) or safety data sheet (SDS), is a document that provides comprehensive information about a particular substance or product. Safety data sheet information typically includes details such as:

  • Chemical composition and properties: Information about the ingredients present in the substance and its characteristics, such as its melting point, boiling point, and pH.
  • Hazards identification: Potential hazards associated with the substance, including physical, health, and environmental hazards. This section also includes information on the appropriate precautions for safe handling, storage, and disposal.
  • First aid measures: Guidelines for providing first aid in case of accidents involving the substance, including instructions for treatment of exposure or inhalation.
  • Fire-fighting measures: Recommendations for extinguishing fires involving the substance, including suitable extinguishing agents and firefighting procedures.
  • Accidental release measures: Procedures for containing and cleaning up spills or releases to prevent environmental contamination and minimise exposure risks.
  • Handling and storage: Guidelines for safe handling, storage, and transportation, including recommended storage conditions (e.g. temperature, ventilation).
  • Exposure controls/personal protection: Recommendations for controlling exposure, including engineering controls and personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Physical and chemical stability: Information about the stability of the substance under various conditions, including compatibility with other substances.
  • Toxicological information: Data on the toxicological properties of the substance, including acute and chronic health effects, routes of exposure, and toxicity levels.
  • Ecological information: Potential environmental impacts of the substance, including its persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity to aquatic organisms and other wildlife.
  • Disposal considerations: Recommendations for the safe disposal of unused or contaminated portions of the substance, in compliance with applicable regulations.

Data sheets are important tools for ensuring the safe handling, storage, and use of chemicals and other hazardous substances on-site. So why aren’t they used more widely?

Datasheet 1

Where’s my data sheet?

One of the first things I ask a customer to do when I visit them on-site is to show me their material safety data sheets. There’s no better way for me to build up an understanding of the materials they’re handling, the risks, and the specific storage requirements. Something I’ve learned over the years is that often when I ask to see them, the data sheets aren’t there.

It’s possible that they’ve been disposed of once the delivery has been received. It’s also possible they’ve been put in a folder somewhere, out of the way. Sometimes management knows where to find them, but not the operators on the ground, and sometimes it’s the other way around, with each party assuming that the other is aware of the compliance conditions.

It’s not essential that you follow your data sheets to the word, and it’s important to stress that the details they contain are recommended guidelines. But when the health and safety of your people, and the reputation of your business, is on the line, it can really pay to have at least reviewed their contents with a mind to making sure that the materials you receive are put into a storage unit that’s compatible with their chemical or environmental requirements.


Using your data sheets in 6 steps

Locate the data sheet for the specific substance or product you’re working with. If you can’t find the physical copy, a digital version may be available from the manufacturer.

1. Reviewing hazard information

Begin by reviewing the hazard identification section. This section provides crucial information about the potential hazards associated with the substance, including physical, health, and environmental hazards. Pay close attention to warnings and precautionary measures.

2. Understanding safe handling and storage

Familiarise yourself with the recommended handling and storage procedures outlined in the data sheet. This includes information on appropriate engineering controls, personal protective equipment (PPE), storage conditions (e.g., temperature, ventilation), and more.

3. Identifying exposure controls

Review the exposure controls/personal protection section to identify measures for controlling occupational exposure to the substance. This may include recommendations for exposure limits, ventilation requirements, and specific PPE needed to minimise exposure risks.

4. Responding to emergencies

Be prepared to respond effectively to emergencies involving the substance by reviewing the first aid measures, fire-fighting measures, and accidental release measures. Ensure that emergency response procedures are in place and that personnel are trained to follow them.

5. Implementing disposal procedures

Follow the disposal considerations provided in the data sheet to ensure safe and compliant disposal of unused or contaminated portions of the substance. Adhere to applicable regulations and environmental guidelines when disposing of hazardous materials.

6. Seeking additional information

If you have any questions or need further clarification about the information presented in the data sheet, don't hesitate to reach out to the manufacturer, supplier, or other qualified professionals for assistance. In this instance, I’d be more than happy to help.

By thoroughly reviewing and understanding the information in the data sheet, you can effectively manage the risks associated with handling and storing hazardous substances in the workplace while promoting safety, environmental protection, and compliance.

Datasheet 2

Can you decipher your data sheets?

Investing in compliance is a lot like taking out insurance. Nobody enjoys it, but in this case, being able to evidence the safety measures you’ve taken and the compliance processes you’ve put in place will go a long way towards demonstrating that you did all you could to prevent the incident or minimise its potential impact on your people and the environment.

If you’d like any help in this area at all, I’m yours for a day to go through your data sheets together. Based on the details within, I can give you directives to work towards, whether it’s recommending that you store your flammables in a class-two unit or advising you to store those other ingredients are stored in separate units, and we can start to look at goods that will spoil if they're not stored at the correct temperature threshold. I’ll show you what those thresholds are, and how far apart to store those ingredients, and which unit you need. 

From data protection to chemical legislation, I’m a compliance man at heart, and I understand how important it is to you that we get this right. Most companies I speak with want to do the right thing by their people, their customers, the environment, and their local community. What would be the value in allowing a breach on one of your bunds as a result of poor compliance, and what would be the value in not taking any precautions to prevent it?

Keeping on top of all this is never easy but I know exactly what to look for to quickly bring your operations back into compliance. If you’d like to chat, I’m here to help — get in touch today.