Worker Takes Safety Precautions

Understanding the New Safety Data Sheets

The GHS is a United Nations initiative to make the handling of chemicals in the workplace safer across the globe. It’s an acronym for The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals and is considered the guideline for companies worldwide when creating safety data sheets (SDS).
GHS’s main document, known as “The Purple Book,” is a 16-page manual that provides countries, including the U.S., with “the regulatory building blocks to develop or modify existing national programs that address classification of hazards and transmittal of information about those hazards and associated protective measures.” According to OSHA, “it helps to ensure the safe use of chemicals as they move through the product life cycle from ‘cradle to grave.’”

The primary aim of the GHS is to establish a comprehensive approach to the labeling of all chemicals by defining every hazard a chemical can pose – from the physical to the environmental. In addition, the GHS establishes what information – as well what protective protocols – need to be maintained on Safety Data Sheets (SDS).


From MSDS to SDS

Before the GHS set the new standard for the classification and labeling of hazardous materials and the creation of safety data sheets, or SDS, hazardous chemical shipments were accompanied by a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).
These documents, typically multiple pages long, followed OSHA’s optional format as well as OSHA’s Hazardous Communication Guidelines for Compliance (HCGC). The HCGC outlines four responsibilities that employers must follow when their employees handle or come in contact with hazardous chemicals.
The employer must:

  • Maintain a hazard communication program detailing the plans in place for the safe handling of chemicals
  • Have available an up-to-date written chemical inventory of every hazard chemical in the facility to which employees are exposed
  • Display labels and warning signs associated with said chemicals
  • Train employees on chemical hazards and necessary precautions


Today, an SDS is essentially an MSDS, except that, in addition to following OSHA’s HCGC guidelines, an SDS also uses the GHS mandatory format.


Writing an SDS – The Four Elements

The GHS was created with one end goal: to create accurate data that is consistent across all countries. The European Union has adopted GHS guidelines and today Canada and the United States are in the process of moving to the new system.
If you’re writing an SDS under the new GHS guidelines, it must include the following elements:

  • Signal Words: These phrases, either DANGER or WARNING, identify the hazard level associated with the use of the chemical. According to the GHS, there should only be one signal word per SDS and it must appear near the very top of the page written in all upper-case letters.
  • Hazard Statements: Common statements include “flammable gas” and “fatal if swallowed.” These statements, following GHS guidelines, are standardized and codified. The appropriate statements can be found in the GHS Purple Book.
  • Pictograms: To globalize information and overcome language barriers, new SDS rely on pictograms that show visual warnings about hazards related to use or spillage. The pictograms are printed in black on a white background and framed by a red outline.
  • Precautionary Statement: These statements describe preventative measures that need to be followed when using the chemicals to reduce hazardous risks. According to the GHS, new SDS must use one of four precautionary statements: prevention, response in cases of accidental spillage or exposure, storage, and disposal.


Photo credit: Ed Uthman / CC BY 2.0

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