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How Much Do You Know About MSDS ?
Read This: It Could Save Your Life

by Nathan Schiff, Ph.D.
Associate Editor - Institutional

On Oct 31, 1988, revisions to the Hazardous Products Act came into effect, resulting in the creation of WHMIS which stands for Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System. This legislation was designed to protect the health and safety of the three million Canadian workers whose jobs involve the handling of chemicals. Its purpose is to safeguard workers, reduce injuries, illnesses, deaths, and fires caused by the use of hazardous materials.

Basically WHMIS, is an information system, which provides workers with information on any potential hazards in their workplace. It does this by requiring that information be available to all workers through product labeling, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and training programs. In this article, the role that the MSDS plays will be examined.

A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is a legal document containing information on the potential effects on your health from exposure to chemicals. It is a nine-section document, dealing with toxicity, use, storage, handling and emergency procedures related to any products the government feels need to be controlled.

It describes the possible hazards involved with the product, how to use it safely, and what to expect when the safety recommendations are not followed. In addition, it tells you what to do when accidents occur and how to recognize symptoms of overexposure.

All controlled products fall into one or more of these categories: compressed gases, flammable and combustible liquids, oxidizing materials, poisonous or infectious material, corrosive material and dangerously reactive material.

1. Suppliers who sell controlled products with ingredients which the government has listed as controlled substances must provide an MSDS to their customers. The purpose of the MSDS is to explain the hazards involved in handling the product and the precautionary measures which must be put in place for its usage.

2. Employers must make sure that current MSDS are readily available to workers, as well as to the Health and Safety Committee. An MSDS for a controlled product must be updated at least once every 3 years. However, if new, significant information becomes available before the three years have elapsed, the supplier is required to update the MSDS immediately.

The toxicology section is the most important part of a MSDS because it tells you about short-term as well as long-term toxic effects on health.

A one-time exposure to relatively large amounts of a chemical can cause you to pass out. When there is a perc spill, for example, six things must happen as quickly as possible.

1. Everyone must be ordered out of the plant.

2. All windows and doors must be opened and ventilator fans turned on to provide a fresh flow of air.

3. Those who are going to deal with the spill must put on masks and approved protective gloves and aprons.

4. One person works, while the other stands by to make sure the worker is not receiving fumes due to a defective filter in the mask.

5. The person mopping up the spill takes towels, rays, mesh bags, blankets, even clothes if necessary, to soak up the spill, puts them immediately in the dry cleaning machine and shuts the door. He or she must be careful not to let the perc come in contact with exposed skin.

6. When all liquid has been moped up and all bags, rags, blankets, etc. are closed up in the cleaning machine (or dryer if you have a transfer system) the solvent is to be reclaimed by the usual method of drying. If anyone does pass out from the fumes, get them outside into the air as quickly as possible.

In a laundry, breathing a high concentration of alkaline vapours from the builder soap used in a wash formula may cause serious burns of the mouth and nasal passages due to toxicity..

Some toxic effects come from repeated exposure, over a long period of time. Chemicals can enter the body and gradually produce poisoning. This kind of poisoning occurs because the exposure is repeated day after day over many years.

Examples of the ways you can develop chronic toxicity include breathing vapours from prespotting chemicals, breathing vapours from acids used in descaling dishwashing machines; or by skin contact or inhalation of some water-soluble, solvent based degreasers, used in prespotting or for general hotel institutional maintenance.

The government wants to protect your health, and has put legislation in place to do it. When the legislation became law, every employer was required to hold training sessions to tell employees about the MSDS sheets and where they were kept. If you were hired after this time, it is possible this training has not been repeated. It is your right as a Canadian worker to ask about the MSDS sheets, be given a chance to read them, and an opportunity to ask management for further information if necessary.

As a manager, it is your responsibility to see that your MSDS sheets are no more than three years old. If your supplier has not kept this information current, it is your right and obligation to ask for new material. It is also your responsibility to make sure that all employees know what they are, and where they can be found.

Distributors have the obligation to demand current MSDS sheets from their suppliers and to see that it is distributed to their customers. When any new chemical is sold, it is the obligation of the distributor to make sure his customer has an MSDS on it.

Industrial safety is very important to all of us and we all have a part to play in it. Working together we can keep everyone safe. That's the purpose of the MSDS program.


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