There are a limited number and amount of chemicals that electricians use to perform their work. Wire lubricants, contact cleaners, etc., are used in sparing quantities. However, the number and variety of substances they can be exposed to is unlimited. Whether performing an electrical installation or maintenance in a residential setting or large industrial plant, owners and other subcontractors may introduce chemicals. In order to work safely, employers need a resource to describe a chemical’s hazardous properties and precautions for safe use. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is that resource. It is at the foundation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Hazard Communication Standard.

The MSDS describes the hazards of a substance or chemical. The format and number of sections used to describe the chemical may vary. At a minimum, OSHA requires eight major areas of information. The first section of an MSDS identifies the name and address of the manufacturer, importer or distributor.

This information is needed in the event an accident occurs. It provides a resource for more information. It must include an emergency phone number.

The second section of this MSDS tells what hazardous ingredients are in the substance. Only the hazardous parts of the substance must be listed. These are called the hazardous components. If a substance is known by different names, they will be listed.

For example, the names propane and LP gas would both be listed on an MSDS for propane. The hazardous ingredients section also tells you the limits of exposure. Terms such as “threshold lit value” (TLV) and “permissible exposure limit” (PEL) are measurements found in this section. Working under these limits ensures employees can work safely with the substance.

The next section lists the special physical and chemical characteristics of the substance. The characteristics are properties of the chemical giving it an identity. For example, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Water’s appearance is a clear liquid at room temperature. These are some of water’s physical characteristics. They may be helpful in identifying the substance.

The fourth section, “Fire and Explosion Data,” describes under what conditions a fire or explosion will occur. Some substances are more flammable or explosive than others. Fire and Explosion Data will also describe the equipment needed to put out the fire as well as special fire fighting procedures.

The fifth section contains reactivity data. Some substances react violently when heated, jarred or mixed with other chemicals. The information in this section helps us prevent conditions that bring about a dangerous change or reaction in the substance.

Hazardous chemicals can enter the body through breathing, eating or absorption through the skin. The “Health Hazard Data” section identifies the type of injury or illness that may occur from overexposure to the chemicals in the substance. If the substance may cause cancer, it will be identified here and the agency that determined its carcinogenicity.

This section also identifies the route of entry to the body and the signs and symptoms of dangerous exposure as well as the first aid procedures to address an exposure. The “Precautions for Safe Handling and Use” section describes special handling and storage instructions, clean-up procedures for spills and leaks, and safe disposal of the waste.

The final section, “Control Measures,” describes the protective equipment and clothing that should be used. Control measures often identify the specific type of respirator needed as well as other personal protective equipment, such as eyewear, gloves, etc.

If a special type of ventilation is required, it will also be listed. Some substances may only require that proper hygienic or health practices be observed.

It is important for employers to recognize the value of MSDSs. OSHA demonstrates its perspective on MSDSs through enforcement. Compliance is determined by examining a sample of MSDSs. Citations are issued when MSDSs are missing. If MSDSs are incomplete or inaccurate, the citation is given to the manufacturers or importer.

If an employer possesses an MSDS, but it is not readily accessible in the work area, a citation will be issued. When an employer is using electronic access to comply, but does not have an adequate backup system to address emergency situations, a citation will be issued.

Citations will also be issued when any employer fails to include the methods by which the employer will inform other employers about on-site access to data sheets. The controlling employer can be the intermediary for storage of MSDSs, but this must be by agreement and MSDSs must be readily available to all.    EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or by e-mail at joconnor@intecweb.com.