Safety Data Sheets

Unfortunately, it is indeed a fact that sooner or later life will kill you. Every day we routinely face risks, including many dangers on the job site. Some risks are obvious, falling objects, falls from heights, injury from moving scenery & crates. Care and safe working habits can help with these.

However, we also face less obvious health dangers at work from chemicals and materials. Paints contain toxic pigments. Chemicals may blister skin or soak through to the bloodstream. Solvents can poison organs and the nervous system. Sprays have toxic gases. Dusts and fumes may be both toxic and carcinogenic.

The Federal government has actually done something to help protect workers, and that is OSHA.

OSHA requires that the employer provide workers with information on health hazards, AND provide the means to stay healthy. When it comes to chemicals, the information we need is provided, originally through Material Safety Data Sheets, or MSDS, and currently through SDS or Safety Data Sheets, so we can know what to do to protect ourselves. SDS tell us the recognized harzards of the chemicals we work with, the required procedures and Personal Protective Equipment, or PPEs (eye protection, masks, gloves, spray booths for spray paint, dyes and chemicals), which are supposed to be provided by our employers for our protection.


To know what precautions to take, you must know what you're up against. Chemical health hazards break down into categories:
Acute, chronic, Sensitization and Carcinogenic.

Let us consider a common and familiar chemical to which many of us have been exposed: Grain Alcohol. This product is of course the "active ingredient" in alcoholic beverages, but it is also a common industrial solvent. Let us look at it as a chemical:

Acute effects of grain alcohol:
Low levels of exposure may not be felt at all, but even low levels will usually cause a slight narcosis. You feel a little tipsy. Higher levels of exposure can cause more severe effects, headache, nausea, loss of coordination, and finally unconsciousness and even death.

All this from a fairly benign solvent. Other solvents, even closely related ones like wood alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and glycol, will cause similar but FAR MORE toxic effects for a given amount. Many, including grain alcohol, can be absorbed right through the skin. They may target different organs. All attack the brain, liver and kidneys, but wood alcohol quickly targets and destroys the optic nerve, making you go blind, and glycol destroy the liver almost immediately, and a small amount can be deadly.

So, sometimes acute effects go away, sometimes they cause long term damage, and sometimes they can kill.

Chronic effect of grain alcohol: Long term exposure includes cirosos or hardening of the liver, and brain damage causing dementia.

A single binge with alcohol may make you sick for a night, but leave no permanent damage.
Chronic drinking can cause organ damage and will eventually kill you.

Sensitizing agents: will cause various allergic reactions which may be quite individual; may take the form of dermatitis (skin rashes, hives, and blisters), respiratory reactions (similar to hay fever), and even anaphalactic shock, a severe reaction which can close off the airways, and even cause death. Sensitizing agents can exhibit chronic effects; they may not show up until there have been several exposures, and then will show increasingly severe reactions on subsequent exposures. Also, once you have been sensitized to one chemical, you will likely become more easily sensitized to others as well, and you MAY ultimately become sensitive to almost everything!

Carcinogens are a special class because they cause cancer cells to develop, which are a mutation of normal cells. There is NO SAFE LEVEL of exposure to carcinogens. One molecule in just the right place and time can cause a cancer. Generally speaking, the greater the exposure the more likely that cancer will develop. But there is no way to tell either way.

A single dose of a carcinogen may kill, or a lifetime exposure may do nothing.

Routes of Entry

There are many ways chemicals can get into you. Some chemicals may be absorbed through the skin and the eyes. Many that produce fumes and vapors may be breathed in and enter the bloodstream through the lungs. They may also be ingested, swallowed and absorbed through the digestive system. This will not only occur if you eat the product, but fumes, dusts and vapors can also fall onto or be absorbed by food and beverages in or near the work area, and the subsequently be eaten or drunk. This is why it is not a good idea to store or consume food and beverages in or near the immediate work area.

How do you protect yourself? Check the SDS.

SDS are a form OSHA requires manufacturers to fill out. Like many government forms, it requires a lot of information which may or may not be useful, and does take practice to read. But once you learn how, they do make sense.



Uses specific terms and definitions defined by OSHA

Information is presented in a specific order and format.
However, there are actually two formats, OSHA and ANSI. The OSHA form is the original government form. Can be a little intimidating and hard to find what you need to know. ANSI is a newer form designed by the American National Standards Institute. It is accepted by OSHA as well and is much more user friendly.

OSHA and ANSI Sections

The MSDS forms are divided into sections to make organize the information. The two forms do not match, but all the information is there if you look in the right section.

Product and Manufacturer (osha 1; ansi 1)

Name of the Product, Trade name, chemical family
Manufacturer's address and phone numbers

Ingredients (osha 2; ansi 2)

Hazardous ingredients, esp. those for which standards have been set. May include exposure level guidelines.

“Proprietary” listings: beware
By using this the manufacturer doesn't HAVE to tell you what is in the product. It is meant to protect trade secrets from the competition, but leaves workers uninformed about how to protect themselves.

Exposure Limits

Exposure limits are how much exposure an average healthy adult (male) can be expected to be exposed to without showing adverse effects. They are NOT "safe" levels. There are no "safe" levels, only tolerable levels, which means they probably won't make you very sick!

Permitted exposure levels ASSUME you are "average", healthy, are not a small person, haven't been exposed to too many other chemicals, not pregnant or likely to be anytime soon, don't have a compromised immune system, etc. In other words, "permitted" levels may still be too much for YOU!

Permitted exposure levels are expressed in several ways:

TVL´s: Threshhold Value Limits
Tolerable, NOT “safe” levels of exposure
Developed by government hygienists

TVL-TWA: Time Weighted Average
8 hr./day; 40 hr./wk
TVL-STEL: Short Term Exposure Level
based on 15 min. exposure
TVL-C: Ceiling Limit
Never exceed, even a moment!

PEL: Permitted Exposure Level
Developed by OSHA based on TVL´s and other industry standards

Enforced by OSHA
TVL´s are NOT

Characteristics (osha 3; ansi 9)

Physical and Chemical

Physical Hazards (osha 4, 5; ansi 5, 10)

Health Hazards (osha 6; ansi 3, 4, 11)

Safe Handling and disposal (osha 7,8; ansi 6, 7, 8, 12)

WARNING: “Normal” Conditions ONLY!
The recommendations for exposures and protection is based on "normal working conditions". That means 8 hrs/ day, 5 days/ week, with a two-day weekend to detoxify. In theatre, we NEVER have normal working conditions! We rarely work a normal "40 hour week", instead we sometimes work more than 8 hours in a day and more that 40 hours in a week or more than 5 days in a row. We may also work a shorter work period with the chemicals in question. The information can be taken as a guide for how bad the stuff might be for us, but will not exactly apply to our situations.

Additional info, precautions (osha 9; ansi 13, 14, 15, 16)

A more direct comparison between the two forms:

OSHA FormatANSI Format

Section 1: Product and Manufacturer
Chemical Names, Trade Names, Chemical family
Manufacturer address
Emergency phone numbers

Section 2: Ingredients and Exposures
Hazardous Ingredients for which standards have been set
Allowable exposure levels

Section 1. Chemical product and company identification Links the MSDS to the material. Identifies the supplier of the MSDS. Identifies a source for more information.

Section 2. Composition/information on ingredients
Lists the OSHA hazardous components. May also list significant nonhazardous components. May also include additional information about components (e.g., exposure guidelines)

Section 3: Physical/Chemical Characteristics
Boiling, melting, freezing points
Vapor pressure
Vapor density
Specific Gravity
Evaporation rate

Section 4: Fire and Explosion data
How flammable it is.

Flash point: lowest ignition temp in presence if ignition source
Flammability and Explosive limits: what is too lean or too rich to burn. Everything in between burns!
How to put out a fire of one occurs.

Section 5: Reactivity Data
Conditions and materials to avoid
Decomposition products
        (only under specific conditions!)
Hazardous polymerization-large molecules from small ones (plastic, etc.)

Section 6: Hazardous Health Data

How it gets in the body
What damage it does there.

Section 7: Safe handling and Use
How to avoid dangerous problems
How to treat a spill or leak
How to safely dispose of product

Section 8: Control measures
How to protect yourself from exposure
Required safety equipment
Masks, gloves, clothing required
Type of respirators that may be required
Required cleanup procedures after work

Section 9: Special Precautions
Any other pertinent information not already covered, such as:
Label information

Section 3. Hazards identification, inc. emergency overview (osha 6)
Emergency overview.
Potential adverse human health effects.
Symptoms from use and misuse of material.

Section 4. First aid measures (osha 6 & 9)
Instructions for accidental exposure requiring immediate treatment.
Instructions to medical professionals.

Section 5. Fire fighting measures (osha 4) Basic fire fighting guidance, including appropriate extinguishing media.
Other fire and explosive properties useful to avoid and fight fires involving material.
E.g. flash point or explosive limits.

Section 6. Accidental release measures (osha 7)
Actions to minimize adverse effects of accidental spill, leak or release of material.

Section 7. Handling and storage (osha 7)
Information on safe handling and storage.

Section 8. Exposure controls/personal protection (osha 8)
Practices, equipment, or both, useful in minimizing worker exposure.
Exposure guidelines.
Guidance on personal protective equipment.

Section 9. Physical and chemical properties (osha 3)
Additional data to help characterize material and to design safe work practices.

Section 10. Stability and reactivity (osha 5)
Describes conditions to be avoided or other materials that may cause a reaction changing intrinsic stability of material.

Section 11. Toxicological information (osha 6)
Provides background toxicological information on the material, its compounds, or both.

Section 12. Ecological information (osha 7)
Provides information on effects of material on plants, animals and on the material's environmental fate.

Section 13. Disposal considerations (osha 9)
Information useful in determining appropriate disposal measures.

Section 14. Transport information (osha 9)
Basic shipping classification information.
Specific transportation labels if required.

Section 15. Regulatory information (osha 9)
Any additional information on regulations affecting the material.

Section 16. Other information (osha 9)
May be used to provide any additional information.

Alcohol (in OSHA format)

Elmer's Glue (in ANSI format)

Barge All-Purpose Cement (in OSHA format)

Back to Table of Contents
Copyright © 2002 Mick Alderson