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Deciphering your Materials Safety Data Sheet

Posted in: Lab Safety
A girl looking at chemicals with explosion residue on her face because she didn't read the safety data sheet

For all the chemical reagents we may use daily, we need to understand what they are made of, the hazards they present, and how to dispose of them.

But there are a lot of chemicals in our labs.

Thankfully, for almost every chemical, all that information is at our fingertips, in their Safety Data Sheets.

Let’s take a look at Safety Data Sheets in more detail. We’ll cover what they are, the information within them, and how you can use them in your lab.

What Is a Safety Safety Data Sheet?

A Safety Data Sheet (SDS), formerly a Material Safety Data Sheet, is the first stop for safety information about any chemical. SDSs are like instruction manuals for chemicals.

They tell you their primary hazards, how to handle them, how to dispose of them, first aid and firefighting measures, how to post them, and more.

Even the most seemingly innocuous, standard reagents like water, salt, and sugar have one, and they may read like a horror story. However, every SDS has the same 16 categories. So you can quickly learn the important facts about your reagent and handle it safely and confidently!

What Are the 16 Sections?

Let’s take a look. Here’s a brief explanation of each of the 16 sections within an SDS.

1. Identification

The Identification section describes your item (including common names and synonyms), the supplier or manufacturer, and what number to contact in case of questions or emergencies.

2. Hazards

The Hazards Identification section is your abstract of the hazards of the chemical. Risks are described by intensity on a scale of 0–4 (0 = least intense, 4 = most intense) and are often depicted in the NFPA 704 colored diamond or hazard information bar for quick visual interpretation.

This is your key to identifying the immediate impact on health, flammability, and reactivity; the specifics are discussed explicitly in the following sections.

3. Composition and Ingredient Information

This section describes the makeup of the reagent or a product formulation. Some data sheets list individual ingredients and state if they are hazardous. Some data sheets are more inclusive and include every chemical name, formula, and molecular weight in this section.

4. First Aid Measures

The first aid measures tell you what you need to know to care for your colleagues if they are exposed to the substance. Remember, you are the first responder in case of spillage or exposure until backup arrives.

5. Firefighting Measures

Firefighting measures are crucial to have on hand because not every chemical fire is fought with water. For example, you should never put out a magnesium fire with water since that generates hydrogen—an extremely flammable gas. Instead, use sand.

Plus, some reagents decompose as they burn, creating secondary, equally intense hazards that you need to be aware of.

6. Accidental Release Measures

This section explains what you need to do to protect yourself and the environment in the case of a spill. Where possible, it also details how to clean up after a spillage.

7. Handling and Storage

The handling and storage section is self-explanatory, though it notes any particular properties, such as if the chemical readily soaks up moisture (hygroscopy). It also includes what conditions to avoid, such as segregating acids and bases.

8. Exposure Controls and Personal Protection

This section describes the personal protective equipment (PPE) required to protect your lungs, eyes, hands, and body when handling the chemical. It defines any exposure limits applicable to the ingredients in your reagent and helps you decide whether or not to request exposure monitoring.

9. Physical and Chemical Properties

This section lists technical data, including molecular weight, color, odor, pH, phase change temperatures, flash point, and vapor pressures, among other information that can help you distinguish one chemical from another.

10. Stability and Reactivity Information

Conditions that make the chemical unstable are listed. Examples include shock, static electricity, or ambient temperature. You can also find out if a chemical reagent needs to be combined with an additive to maintain stability and whether or not there are telltale signs of spoilage to look out for, such as color changes.

11. Toxicological Information

Toxicological information alerts you to the nasty things a chemical can do to your body, like target specific organs, cause cancer (carcinogenicity), impair fetal development (teratogenicity), or mutate your DNA (mutagenicity).

Where available, it also includes the LD50 (for Lethal Dose, 50%). This is the amount of chemical required to kill 50% of test animals.

12. Ecological Information

The ecological information alerts you to the harm a reagent may cause the environment, how and where it accumulates, and how long it takes to degrade.

Where available, it also includes the EC50 (for Effective Concentration, 50%). This is the amount of chemical required to produce half of the maximum value of a measurable effect.

13. Disposal Information

Disposal information describes how to discard your chemical and how to discard any contaminated packaging.

14. Transportation Information

Transportation information lists the shipping requirements that apply when the item is shipped from the supplier or from you to someone outside your organization.

15. Regulatory Information

This section contains required notices at regional, national, and state levels. These pertain to health and environmental hazards.

16. Other Information

This is a general section within an SDS that contains miscellaneous information. Some manufacturers add the date of document creation and updates here. It might grant you the right to print unlimited copies for internal use or state that the information is under review.

Any helpful information that doesn’t belong in the other 15 categories will be detailed here.

How to Use Safety Data Sheets in Your Lab

Collect and File Them

When you order a new chemical, file the SDS in your lab’s collection. Or start collecting them if your lab doesn’t already do so.

Start a Rota to Check Common Ones Are up to Date

For the reagents you order regularly, think about making a schedule to check whether or not your lab has the latest, updated version. That way, you know your records are complete and up to date.

Consider Archiving Them Electronically

You may also consider building your own SDS library for the chemicals you use most often. Storing SDS electronically means you can organize and name each SDS by item name, manufacturer, assay purpose, or any way that makes sense for your lab.

It also enables you to search for data sheets easily.

Safety Data Sheets Summarized

Simple but effective. That about sums up Safety Data Sheets. You now know what they are and what’s inside them, and you now have some tips on using them effectively in your lab.

But there’s a lot more to lab safety! If you want to get better at keeping yourself and your colleagues safe at work, Why not pick up a copy of our free lab safety eBook?

Originally published in November 2014. Reviewed and updated, January 2023.

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