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
dont want to tell workers or consumers the true dangers of the product; theyd
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 dont 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
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.
CHECK THE DATE
MSDSs issued more than 10 years ago (before 1986) are likely to be out of
date by now.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outdated, and that the company needs to get a more up-to-date one from the manufacturer,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 dont 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.)
EXAMINE HEALTH EFFECTS INFORMATION
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
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 its 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
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 cant 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 wont
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 doesnt 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 companys 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.