October 13, 2020

The Importance of Safety Data Sheets (SDS)

Communicating About Worker Safety: The Importance of Safety Data Sheets

The Government of Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) 2015 details how healthcare organizations should inform employees about any hazardous chemicals to which they may be exposed at work. WHMIS 2015 includes criteria for hazard classification and requirements for Safety Data Sheets (SDSs).

These informative documents are critical in keeping workers, patients, and the environment safe. The following sections take a closer look at WHMIS 2015 requirements for SDSs and how organizations can ensure consistent compliance.

What Is a Safety Data Sheet (SDS)?

A Safety Data Sheet communicates comprehensive information about a chemical, including its properties; physical, health, and environmental hazards; and any protective measures or safety precautions that should be followed when handling, storing, or transporting the material.

SDSs are usually written by the manufacturer or supplier of the product. An SDS is provided to any entity who uses the hazardous chemical, such as healthcare organizations. In turn, healthcare organizations must ensure employees can quickly access the most up-to-date SDSs for hazardous chemicals used and stored in their workspace. SDSs should be detailed yet easy-to-understand. To that end, an SDS follows a prescribed, user-friendly format.

What Products Need an SDS?

Every product that is classified as a "hazardous product" under WHMIS that is intended for use, handling, or storage in a workplace in Canada must have an SDS.

SDSs must be in both official languages, English and French. The SDS may be provided as one bilingual SDS, or as two SDSs, one in each language. If two separate SDSs are provided, both the English and French sheets must be given at the same time.

How Many Sections Are in a Safety Data Sheet and What Information is Included?

The Hazardous Products Regulations (HPR) outlines the sections and content for the SDS. An SDS is divided into 16 sections that communicate the following information:

  • Section 1 identifies the chemical by name, including any common abbreviations or synonyms; what the material can be used for; and the supplier’s emergency contact information.
  • Section 2 outlines the chemical’s hazards as well as warning information. Manufacturers will use statements and pictograms that follow the requirements of the Globally Harmonized System—a set of internationally created and approved criteria for classifying health, physical, and environmental hazards.  
  • Section 3 lists the product’s ingredient(s), including impurities and stabilizing additives.
  • Section 4 describes first aid measures, such as initial care for an individual exposed to the chemical, acute and delayed symptoms, and any recommendations for more extensive medical treatment.
  • Section 5 outlines how to contain a fire caused by the chemical, including suitable extinguishing equipment, hazards that could develop as a result of the fire, and any recommended personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Section 6 describes accidental release measures including personal precautions, PPE, and emergency procedures. Additional topics cover how to respond to spills of different sizes and proper safety precautions.
  • Section 7 offers guidance on chemical handling and storage, including any incompatibilities, ventilation requirements, and hand hygiene recommendations.
  • Section 8 covers how to minimize worker exposure, describing exposure limits, potential engineering controls, and recommended personal protective measures.
  • Section 9 identifies a range of relevant physical and chemical properties associated with the substance or mixture, including but not limited to appearance, flammability, odour, solubility, flash point, and viscosity.
  • Section 10 outlines the chemical’s reactivity hazards and stability information.
  • Section 11 details toxicological and health effects, such as likely exposure routes, the effects of exposure, and whether the chemical is considered to be a carcinogen.
  • Section 12 provides information on the chemical’s potential environmental impact if it were released into the environment. Content within this section is optional.
  • Section 13 delineates proper disposal practices. It includes information on safe handling for disposal and methods of disposal, including any contaminated packaging. Content in this section is optional.
  • Section 14 provides guidance on classification information for hazardous chemical shipping and transportation. Content in this section is optional.
  • Section 15 provides information relating to safety, health, and environmental regulations, made within or outside Canada, specific to the product in question. Content in this section is optional.
  • Section 16 provides other information not included anywhere else on the SDS, including the date of last revision.

Where Should Safety Data Sheets Be Kept?

Employers, including healthcare organizations of all types, must provide employees with ready access to SDSs for the hazardous chemicals in their workplace. There are many ways to facilitate access. For example, employers may keep their SDSs in a binder, or store them electronically. Even if an organization chooses to store SDSs electronically, they should have a back-up available in case of a power outage or other emergency.

Do Employees Exposed to Hazardous Chemicals Need Training?

Employees should receive training when they are first assigned to work with a hazardous chemical to make sure they understand the risks and the practices that can keep themselves and their co-workers safe—before they start interacting with the material. They should also receive training when a new hazardous chemical is introduced into the work area if they have not been trained on that material to date.

Hazardous Chemical Training Requirements

Training must include more than just reading the SDS. Employees must take proper WHMIS training. Education describes the dangers associated with the chemicals in the work area, what can be done to minimize risk, and how to respond to a spill.

Training should be accessible and easy to understand. It should also include an opportunity for employees to ask questions to ensure they fully comprehend the information presented.

How to Ensure Your Organization Is Compliant with WHMIS 2015 SDS Requirements

A first step in complying with WHMIS 2015’s SDS requirements is to recognize the hazardous chemicals a healthcare organization has onsite. This may involve conducting a room-by-room inventory and listing all the chemicals present.

Once an organization has a detailed list, staff can check that the required SDSs are available and accessible. An organization may want to designate a specific person(s) responsible for obtaining and maintaining the SDS. If a required SDS is missing, the designated employee should ensure that it is made available.

It is also important to check that SDSs are current. Manufacturers will send an SDS the first time a chemical is delivered or after there is a change to the document. When a new SDS arrives, staff must compare it to the existing one to determine what has changed. The organization should have processes for broadly communicating any new information to staff.

Learn more about how Stericycle can help you manage your Occupation Health and Safety programs, including online WHMIS training.  

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