Safety Data Sheets: What they Are and Why they Matter in Construction


Construction of commercial buildings comes with hazards, some more obvious than others. Individuals completing work in construction are often tasked with handling a variety of materials, some of which can be dangerous if improperly used.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standardizes what are known as Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), which outline chemical hazards, safety precautions for handling, and proper transport protocols. Formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), tracking and reviewing chemical information contributes to maintaining safety on construction sites.

OSHA addresses SDS regulation within their Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). Aligned with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (HCS), this system is designed to promote safety by communicating the hazards and ensuring proper handling, storage and transportation of chemicals in the workplace.

Hazard Communication is consistently one of OSHA’s Top 10 Most Frequently Cited Hazards. Knowledge and utilization of an established hazard communication program, including knowledge of SDSs, is critical to maintaining safety in the workplace. Today, we’ll learn more about what SDSs are, and how they can be helpful in preventing harm to workers.  

What Are Safety Data Sheets?  

Safety Data Sheets are required for all hazardous chemicals and must be provided to users by the manufacturer and/or distributor. These documents are organized consistently, in a 16-section format which guides users as to the properties, dangers and safe means of handling each material. These sections in each are as follows:

Section 1:

Identifies the chemical and recommended uses as well as restrictions for use. It also identifies the manufacturer and their contact information.

Section 2:
Hazard(s) Identification

Identifies the hazards associated with the chemical, including warnings for use and pictograms of the hazard.

Section 3:
Composition/Information on Ingredients

Identifies the substances that make up the chemical, as well as the probable health risks for the individual ingredients.

Section 4:
First Aid Measures

Identifies the type of care that should be given in the event that an individual is exposed to the chemical, including first-aid measures, symptoms that may occur and special treatment required.

Section 5:
Fire-Fighting Measures

Makes recommendations about fighting fires that may have involved this chemical. Information includes proper extinguishing equipment, hazards such as combustion and proper personal protective equipment.

Section 6:
Accidental Release Measures

Describes measures to take when responding to spills, leaks or accidental release, including containment measures, cleaning practices, evacuation recommendations and more.

Section 7:
Handling and Storage

Reviews safe handling and storage practices, including recommendations such as not eating, drinking or smoking in the vicinity of the chemical. It also focuses on the incompatibilities with other chemicals and ventilation requirements.  

Section 8:
Exposure Controls/Personal Protection

Outlines how to minimize worker exposure through exposure limits, engineering controls and PPE.  

Section 9:
Physical and Chemical Properties

Describes physical and chemical properties of the compound. This may include descriptions of the appearance, odor, melting/freezing point, boiling point, flash point, evaporation rate, solubility, and more.

Section 10:
Stability and Reactivity

Describes the stability or instability of a chemical and what might be necessary to maintain stability of the chemical.

Section 11:
Toxicological Information

Describes the likely ways exposure can happen, for instance, inhalation, ingestion, skin and/or eye contact, and the effects of short and long terms exposure. This section also notes listings of each chemical, such as those on the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Report on Carcinogens, or the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or whether the chemical has been identified as a potential carcinogen by OSHA.

Sections 12 – 15 are included in OSHA’s documents to comply with the UN Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). However, OSHA does not enforce the content of these sections, as they’re enforced by other agencies.

Section 12:
Ecological Information (non-mandatory)

Identifies the environmental impacts of the chemical if released into the environment, including toxicity tests, absorption studies and more.

Section 13:
Disposal Considerations (non-mandatory)

Provides guidance for properly disposing of the chemical, including recommended containers, discouraging sewage disposal, considerations for landfills, and more.

Section 14:
Transport Information (non-mandatory)

Requires information related to transporting chemicals, including UN number and shipping name, transport hazard class, environmental hazards, guidance for bulk transport, and more.

Section 15:
Regulatory Information (non-mandatory)

Identifies regulations related to the chemical that aren’t available anywhere else. Regulatory information may be from OSHA, the Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, etc.

Section 16:
Other Information

Includes when the SDS was prepared, what changes were made from previous versions, or other useful information.

The standard format as outlined above allows for users of each chemical to have a resource to quickly access information for keeping themselves and the environment safe. Find OSHA’s brief on Hazard Communication Standards, click here.

Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS)

OSHA’s requirements for SDSs are a part of a larger, global effort to standardize communications related to hazardous chemicals. The United States, Canada, European Union and United Nations Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods systems were all used as a basis for global standardization, creating the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, others known as the GHS.

This effort recognized that while chemicals can greatly enhance our way of life across the globe, tracking and communicating their hazards was difficult and incomplete. As chemicals are often produced and distributed across countries, this effort to standardize the classification and labeling of chemicals allows protective measures to be enacted and standardized wherever and whenever the products might be used.

Sections 12 – 16 of each SDS is governed by the GHS, instead of OSHA.  While OSHA does require these sections be included in each SDS, they will not enforce the content of these sections, since the oversight for these is the GHS.

Employer Obligations

Employers are required to have SDSs available for all products that an employee may be exposed to. They should be posted or accessible at any time by workers on the site.

In construction, a variety of chemicals may be in use at any given time. In addition to the SDS for the general contractor, individual subcontractors will also have SDSs for their products. Regardless of whether the products are being utilized by the prime contractor or one of their subcontractors, the SDS must be available for viewing by all workers. Employers will typically refer to their means of tracking and distributing SDS information as a Hazard Communications Program.

Digital Tracking of Safety Data Sheets

With jobsites increasing in complexity and technology, tracking a large quantity of SDSs can be daunting and challenging. In past decades, it was common for SDSs to be stored in hard-copy format, perhaps inside a job trailer.  Today, however, many contractors exchange information virtually or through cloud-based technology. The collecting and sharing of SDS information may be as simple as providing a link to the collection of documents.

Out-of-the-box software systems are now available, cataloguing SDS information and allowing companies to subscribe to their services and make SDSs available to their workers on demand. Some inline SDS companies include:

With virtual access, including web-based, app-based for mobile use, and other methods, these technologies make tracing SDSs easier than ever before.

Increased Safety through Safety Data Sheet

As construction sites are complex and safety is an increasing priority for contractors across the globe, the standardization and use of SDSs is a vehicle for keeping workers and the environment safe. It’s important that jobsites be prepared with SDS records for all substances onsite, and that workers be familiar with them.