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Material safety data sheet

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A material safety data sheet (MSDS) is a standardized document containing safe use and hazard-management information for any chemical agent used in any workplace (including but not limited to a chemistry laboratory) where contact with that agent might pose any health or safety risk for workers, emergency first responders, or both. It contains information on the hazards posed by the agent, how to use the agent safely, and how the presence of that agent might complicate first response to fire, report of poisoning, or any other hazard.

In the United States, every workplace that handles any agent that poses a hazard to health or safety must by law have an MSDS for every such agent.[1][2]

History of MSDS

MSDS's have been a part of the scientific practice of chemistry since the first (postdiluvian) chemists began their experiments.[3] The first written MSDS's were probably tomb paintings and papyrus records in ancient Egypt, and especially the records of Imhotep the physician. A few centuries later the Sumerians produced their MSDS equivalents on clay tablets.

MSDS's from the Greek and Roman periods reveal as much about the tremendous development of medicine (and from Rome, battlefield medicine) during those periods as about the attention that the Greeks and Romans paid to the safe handling of medication, dyes, and other materials that they handled. When Rome fell, the great monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church kept much of this information, and the great Muslim empires kept even more. Kaplan[3] credits the re-introduction of these records into southern Italy and France with helping start the Renaissance.

The invention of movable type was the first great step toward establishment of a standard for data sheets. The next step would come with the standardization of units of measure.

Modern MSDS-related regulation probably began in the early twentieth century with the founding of the National Fire Prevention Association. The trend toward increasing regulation and standardization accelerated in the 1930's and 1940's. Nor was government the only institution interested in this area; chemical manufacturers and insurers also took an active interest in ensuring the safe handling of chemical reagents.


MSDS's vary somewhat from different countries, but all formats offer the same kind of information. An international standard for MSDS was agreed-to in 1993 and revised in 1998.

In the United States, the American National Standards Institute has established the most popular format for MSDS. Under this format, an MSDS must carry the following information:

  1. The identity of the substance and information on how to contact the company that makes it.
  2. The chemical composition and data on the individual components. (MSDS's are required on mixtures, not merely on pure substances.)
  3. Identification of the specific hazards.
  4. First-aid for any kind of exposure that might present a hazard to self or others.
  5. Measures required to fight any fire fueled by the substance.
  6. Measures to contain an accidental release of the substance.
  7. How to handle and store the substance.
  8. How to control exposure, and how those who work with this substance ought to protect themselves.
  9. Physical and chemical properties of the substance.
  10. Stability and reactivity of the substance, either with other substances likely to be used or with anything that might be used to fight a fire or contain a spill.
  11. Whether and in what manner the substance might be poisonous to those exposed to it.
  12. Whether and in what manner the substance, if released, might damage the local or wider environment.
  13. How to dispose of the substance properly and safely for all concerned.
  14. How to transport the substance without risking release or other accident.
  15. What other regulations govern the use of the substance.
  16. Any other information that might be pertinent to a worker, first responder, or any other person who might come in contact with the agent or someone exposed to it.

The Standard Hazard Diagram

NFPA 704 svg.png

: Main Article: NFPA 704

The familiar hazard diagram takes the form of four squares colored blue, red, yellow, and white, oriented as a diamond or lozenge. It holds hazard ratings that appear on a scale of 0 (no hazard) to 4 (extremely dangerous). They are:

  1. A health hazard rating, in the blue square. A 4 rating means that small exposures can kill.
  2. A fire hazard rating, in the red square. A 4-rated substance could flash into flame at room temperature.
  3. A reactivity hazard rating, in the yellow square. 4-rated substances typically react with extreme violence when combined with other substances that might ordinarily seem to be innocuous.

In addition, the white square, at the bottom of the lozenge, holds a symbol of the most important special consideration of which first responders ought to be aware. For example, a capital W with a horizontal bar drawn through it means, "Do not use water to fight a fire, clean up a spill, or handle any other hazardous situation involving this agent."

In addition to the NFPA 704 symbol required on each MSDS, the doorway to any room in a building where hazardous substances are used must have a summary NFPA symbol prominently posted on it. It holds the highest hazard rating in each category of all the chemical agents normally used in that room.[4]

Current regulatory requirements

  • Any workplace must have MSDS's on any substance that poses any sort of hazard.
  • Any workplace that combines chemicals must create new MSDS's for any new compound or mixture that the workers create from such mixture.
  • Any workplace that creates a new chemical for distribution to other workplaces must have on file an MSDS for that chemical.
  • Any workplace that changes the original contact information on an MSDS, for example to protect a relationship that is a trade secret, must assume full responsibility for providing first-aid advice and other first-responder or poison-control assistance that a contact normally provides.
  • No one pre-reviews all MSDS's. Instead, MSDS's are subject to review during an investigation of an accident on the workplace and/or a death or severe injury on the job. Chemical manufacturers have available to them a variety of resources for the voluntary review of their MSDS's for accuracy and completeness.
  • Most of the information on MSDS's is in the public domain or derives from prior work. Therefore, nothing is subject to an enforceable copyright, except perhaps any non-standard graphic or other layout element. Most authorities strongly advise against even attempting to copyright an MSDS.

Where to find MSDS's

Within the USA:

Outside the USA:


  1. "The MSDS FAQ." Interactive Learning Paradigms, Incorporated, March 7, 2008. Accessed May 13, 2008.
  2. Helmenstine, Anne Marie. "Using Material Safety Data Sheets." <>. Accessed May 13, 2008.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kaplan, Samuel Aaron. "Development of Material Safety Data Sheets." American Chemical Society, April 13-18, 2007. Accessed May 13, 2008.
  4. In some workplaces, even the restrooms carry NFPA 704 symbols on their doors, although the hazard ratings in the three categories are typically all zeroes.