It’s a scenario every building service contractor dreads: A cleaning employee has an accident with a chemical. Whether he splashes toilet bowl cleaner in his eye or his skin comes in contact with harsh stripper, it’s important that he (or his peers) knows how to handle the situation safely and swiftly.

An A-to-Z education about any substance is available in one simple document — a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). Designed to provide workers with the proper procedures for handling and using a particular material, an MSDS includes emergency measures in case of a mishap.

“It provides instructions on how to administer first aid for the given chemicals in the product. This is especially important because those instructions vary by chemical,” says Dennis Richards, president of Puritan Cleaning Professionals in Missoula, Mont. “Splashing your eyes with water may be the right thing to do in one circumstance, but could make an accident worse in another.”

An MSDS is also critical in a worst-case scenario — when a worker ends up in the hospital.

“You can pull the MSDS and get it to a paramedic or take it to the hospital so the health care providers know what the exposure was,” says Ken Law, CBSE, district manager of Professional Facilities Management in Montgomery, Ala.

Preventing a harmful and costly accident is only one reason BSCs should keep a complete and current set of MSDSs for all chemicals in their janitor closets. The sheets are also necessary for compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Hazardous Communication Regulations.

“It also makes great business sense to ensure all of your employees are working under safe conditions when dealing with even every day cleaning supplies,” says Paul Greenland, CBSE, president of Aetna Building Maintenance in Columbus, Ohio.

Locating an MSDS
There are many options available to BSCs when it comes to retrieving an MSDS. Manufacturers have the responsibility to write and update MSDSs for everything they produce so they are the best sources for up-to-date information. To obtain an MSDS, a BSC can call the company that manufactures that particular chemical and request that the MSDS be sent via mail, e-mail or fax. BSCs may also be able to download MSDSs from the manufacturer’s web site.

Be aware, however, that manufacturers are not obligated to supply MSDSs to non-customers. Also, larger companies can be difficult to reach. It is often much easier to get the paperwork from your distributor, who can also inform you when the sheets are revised or updated, says Law.

MSDSs can also be found through several third-party suppliers, such as MSDS Online and MSDS Solutions, which catalog millions of sheets online. For a fee, a BSC can utilize such a service to keep all of its safety documents in one place. The virtual binder is searchable and the documents can be printed whenever needed.

MSDSs at the job site
Regardless of where a BSC gets its MSDSs, the documents must be accessible to employees. Most safety experts recommend keeping a master set at the main offices, either in a well-organized binder, scanned into a computer system, or at one of the online service providers.

“They need to be in an easy-to-access location that is in plain view and easy to get to in the event of an emergency,” Richards says.

If the master set is not accessible to employees 24 hours a day, additional sets should be made available wherever chemicals are stored or used.

“Some accounts may not use all of your chemicals so it’s best to customize each,” Greenland says. “Maintain an up-to-date master copy and then assemble them according to each account so that they are specific to each.”

Many customers want a set of relevant MSDSs to have on file and some require the sheets so they can approve the products to be used. If applicable, give a set to the safety or security department or nurse’s station.

The most critical aspect of MSDS management is keeping the sheets current. Too often, BSCs forget to get an MSDS for a new product, particularly when it is purchased from a store instead of a distributor. Or they forget to replace an MSDS when the product is new or improved. Minimize mistakes by putting one person in charge of the sheets.

“Never allow even the most commonly used chemical to be used without first having the MSDS,” Greenland says. “A great rule of thumb is no chemical comes into work and is used without going through the director of safety first. This ensures that the chemical is safe to use and that it’s appropriate for the job and the environment.”

Finally, be sure to educate new employees on how to find and read an MSDS.

“Our initial training is about an hour and includes a video discussions of products and how they are used,” Law says. “Any product used in a facility has to be explained to the employees using the products.”

Re-train employees every time an MSDS is added, deleted or updated so everyone knows of the changes and can protect themselves.

MSDS Anatomy

An MSDS contains just about everything a worker, building occupant or emergency personnel would ever need to know about a substance, from its melting point to its health effects. Although formats vary, MSDSs are typically broken into sections that contain related safety information. Some examples of data that can be found on an MSDS include:

  • Product composition, a listing of active and inactive ingredients and exposure limits for those chemicals.
  • Health hazards, including signs and symptoms of overexposure, medical conditions aggravated by exposure, routes of entry, carcinogenicity indicators and relevant first-aid measures.
  • Fire-fighting procedures, including explosion hazards, flash point, and suggested extinguishing media.
  • Proper handling and storage of the substance.
  • Personal protective equipment to be worn when using the product.
  • Stability and reactivity data, such as materials to avoid mixing with it.
  • Each MSDS must include emergency phone numbers, either directly to the manufacturer or to an outside company with 24-hour access.

Becky Mollenkamp is a business writer in Des Moines, Iowa, and a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.