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Materials Safety Data Sheets
(Reading Between the Lines)

UE News H&S, February 1996

MATERIAL SAFETY DATA SHEETS (MSDSs) can provide important health and safety information about toxic materials we use on the job.

But too often they are written in "technical-ese." They conceal, rather than reveal, the dangers of the chemicals we work with.

This should come as no surprise — the companies which manufacture the products are usually the same ones which produce the data sheets. They certainly don’t want to tell workers or consumers the true dangers of the product; they’d prefer to gloss over them as much as possible.

However . . . if the manufacturers are caught lying on the MSDSs, they can be fined or sued for big bucks. So they usually don’t lie outright on MSDSs, they just leave out certain types of health information or make misleading statements.

Last year, in a study of the accuracy of MSDSs, scientists found that two-thirds had inaccurate health hazard information (American Industrial Hygienics Journal, 1995, p. 178). Most often the inaccurate health information was about so-called chronic diseases, lie heart disease, cancer and other types of disease which take many years to develop. On the other hand, scientists found "acute" health effects, like irritation due to skin or eye contact, which are noticed immediately, were often reported accurately.

But despite these inaccuracies, working people can and do get useful information from these MSDSs. Below are some key things to check in order to make sense of the information in an MSDS.


MSDSs issued more than 10 years ago (before 1986) are likely to be out of date by now. So if you request an MSDS for a chemical or product you work with and it is more than 10 years old, give it back to your supervisor. Tell him or her that it is outdated, and that the company needs to get a more up-to-date one from the manufacturer, preferably one from the 1990s. If you don’t get a newer one in a few weeks, talk it over with your shop steward or other union officers and decide how to proceed.

(NOTE: OSHA requires that the information on the MSDS be current, but it has no regulation about just how often MSDSs must be updated to stay current.)


Look carefully at the so-called chronic health effects, that is the ones which result from years of work exposure. If you see that one or more chemicals in the product cause cancer in animals, then it must be treated as a suspect cancer agent for humans.

The manufacturer may go on to say that these chemicals have not been shown to cause cancer in humans. This may be true, but often it’s because the chemical has not been adequately studied among humans.

The fact is that the vast majority of chemicals which OSHA regulates as cancer agents were first found to cause cancer in animals. That is why the National Toxicology Program and other federal agencies take evidence from animal tests so seriously, and often regulate chemicals such as formaldehyde based mainly on animal tests. And that is why you and your co-workers need to take special care when an MSDS reports a cancer agent.

First, the union needs to ask management whether this particular product needs to be used in the shop, or whether a less dangerous product could be substituted. For example, the cancer agent benzene has been replaced in many U.S. companies by other, non-cancerous solvents such as toluene.

If the product can’t be replaced now, then a whole series of protective measures need to be taken. Is there adequate, well maintained exhaust ventilation to remove any vapors and dusts coming from the product? Can the operations involving this product be moved to a more isolated area of the shop, so others won’t be unnecessarily exposed? Are all workers using the product given adequate protective clothing and respiratory protection? Are the respirators individually fit tested, as required by law?

Another ploy which some manufacturers use, especially with fabricated plastic products like acrylonitrile and styrene, is to say that these chemicals "are not regulated by OSHA as carcinogens."

This last statement is true but misleading. These chemicals are known and suspected cancer agents, respectively, and their exposure is regulated by OSHA for the plastics companies which make them. But OSHA then caved in and decided not to extend this protection to workers in industries downstream that machine, mold and process the products containing them. So these chemicals are cancer agents, but OSHA doesn’t regulate them for most exposed workers. OSHA was wrong to deny its protections to so many workers, as they did in this case. If these chemicals are used in your plant, make sure proper precautions are taken.

Finally, check out vague terms like "liver disorders" or "blood disorders." Ask management what specific disorders these terms are referring to. Are those disorders mild and reversible, or do they cause chronic disabilities? And check out the accuracy of the company’s data sheets with friendly health and safety organizations such as local COSH groups (Committees for Occupational Safety and Health), or with contacts at local health science schools. Also, in some states such as New Jersey and California, you can compare these data sheets against MSDSs issued by the state department of health.

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