Safety Data Sheets – An Introduction

What are Safety Data Sheets?

A Safety Data Sheet (SDS) is a document in a standard format designed to identify the intrinsic hazards associated with chemical products for users of these products. It also indicates appropriate responses to spills, fires, environmental releases, and other types of incidents involving the product. Information for contacting the manufacturer and/or importer, and emergency response personnel also appear on the document.

In the US, the Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) requires producers and importers of chemicals to classify them for hazards, and to provide this information to employers and employees having these chemicals in their workplaces. The Safety Data Sheet is one component for providing this information. Other components include labeling chemical containers for hazards and associated precautions; other types of warnings; and employee training. Together, these components form the basis of a Hazard Communication Program in the workplace.

Other countries and groups of countries developed similar regulations for hazard classification of chemicals, and communication of these hazards to workers. For example, Canada developed the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) regulations. The European Union adopted the Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) regulations.

The formats for Safety Data Sheets and labels have varied from country to country. Criteria for hazard classification and the resulting hazard categories also differ. In some cases, the intended recipients for the hazard information extend beyond the workplace to consumers and others who might come into contact with the chemical. On the other hand, some countries have no regulations at all.

What is GHS? 

Because global trade in chemical products has become extensive, the United Nations recognized the need to standardize the criteria among different countries for classifying chemical hazards and then communicating the hazards on Safety Data Sheets and labels.

Consequently, the UN developed the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). The standard incorporated features of "major" hazardous chemical regulatory systems in the US, Canada, and the European Union. The UN also derived some content for the standard from its own Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods.

The GHS standard includes harmonized criteria for classifying chemical products, as well as a format for Safety Data Sheets and labels. It also incorporates coded hazard statements (H-statements), and precautionary statements (P-statements) related to general, physical, health, spillage, and storage hazards.

The UN revises the GHS standard every two years. The revisions can include new hazard categories, revised phrasing and/or combinations of some P-statements, and the association of specific P-statements with hazard classifications.

At this writing the current version is GHS rev. 7.

How is GHS implemented?

The GHS standard is voluntary, in the sense that each participating country is responsible for either developing new or adapting existing laws and regulations that conform to the standard. In addition, the UN incorporated a building blocks approach, in which a participating country could adopt some GHS portions and not others.

Some countries have also included hazard classifications and/or H-statements from their existing regulations, which are not part of the GHS. For example, the US added hazard classes and associated H-statements for combustible dusts, "hazards not otherwise classified", pyrophoric gases, and simple asphyxiants. Canada added similar classifications, plus biohazardous/infectious materials; and included generic H-statements for physical, health, and infection hazards.

In the US, OSHA incorporated portions of GHS rev. 3 into the Hazard Communication Standard in 2012, and set a deadline of June 1, 2015 for manufacturers and importers to update to the new hazard classifications and Safety Data Sheet format. Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam also adopted GHS rev. 3.

A sample listing of countries and their adopted GHS revisions appears below. Because governments periodically revise their laws and regulations, the list can be expected to change over time.

Country Adopted GHS revision
Argentina 5
Australia 3
Brazil 4
Canada 5
China 4
Columbia 4
Ecuador 1
EU 5 (some sources claim rev. 4)
Indonesia 4
Japan 4
Korea 4
Malaysia 3
Mexico 5
New Zealand Not specified; based on a conversion table from HSNO Act categories
Norway 4
Philippines 4
Russia 4
Serbia 2
Singapore 4
South Africa Not specified
Switzerland 5
Thailand 3
Turkey 3
Uruguay Not specified
Vietnam 3

The UN maintains a GHS implementation page providing more detailed information on the current status of GHS adoption in a number of countries.

How does SDScribe™ handle GHS revisions?

SDScribe features a drop-down menu on the SDS entry form, where you can select the GHS revision which you want to apply to that individual SDS. The program supports GHS revisions 3 through 6. It also includes special options for the US ("US", a modified GHS rev. 3) and for the European Union/European Economic Area ("EU", a modified GHS rev. 5).

GHS selector (drop-down menu)

GHS selector (drop-down menu)

You can set a default GHS revision in preferences, so that the program will select this GHS revision when you create a new SDS.

If you decide to switch to a different GHS revision, and your SDS already includes hazard classifications or related items (pictograms, H-statements, or P-statements), then the program will offer to convert these items into their equivalents in the new revision.

If conversion of a classification or a related item is not possible, then the original hazard will still appear on the SDS after conversion. It will appear on the entry form in orange text. For example, GHS rev. 3 (and the "US" GHS revision, based on Revision 3) does not include environmental hazards such as acute aquatic toxicity. If you have included an environmental classification of this type, then it will be listed in orange after a switch to the "US" or Revision 3 GHS.

[rev. 12.12.2017]