Quiz

Haz Com and the OSHA Rules for Electronic SDS Systems

When the OSHA Hazard Communication (Hazcom) standard was first written, what were then called Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) (and which are now called Safety Data Sheets (SDS) were kept almost exclusively in 3-ring loose-leaf binders. But Hazcom rules have evolved to account for digital technology. Well, sort of.

SITUATION

A clinical lab keeps an SDS for each hazardous product it uses, handles and stores in a large binder near chemical storage tanks at its facility. Workers have a habit of ripping the SDS out of the binder so they can review them before they wash the tanks down. As a result, SDSs are constantly missing from the binder. To fix the problem, the lab throws out the binder and switches to an electronic system that allows workers to access each SDS digitally. Since many of the workers aren’t comfortable using a computer, the employer gives everyone a four-hour course on accessing and printing SDSs.

QUESTION

Does the lab’s electronic SDS system violate Hazcom?

  1. Yes, because the electronic system impedes worker access to SDSs to the extent workers aren’t comfortable using computers.
  2. No, because employers are allowed to have electronic instead of paper SDSs, as long as they train workers how to access them.
  3. Yes, because even though electronic SDS systems are permissible, employers must still maintain a hard copy of each SDS as a backup.
  4. No, as long as there’s an adequate backup system enabling workers to access electronic SDSs during emergencies.

ANSWER

  1. The lab wouldn’t be in violation of Hazcom as long as it ensures that workers have access to the electronic SDSs at all times, even during emergencies such as equipment failures and power outages.

EXPLANATION

Hazcom requires employers to keep SDSs for each hazardous product that workers are exposed to. But simply maintaining an SDS binder isn’t enough—the employer must also “ensure that SDSs are readily accessible during each work shift.” If SDSs are missing from your binder, they’re not “readily accessible.” Electronic access is allowed as an alternative to paper, provided that the electronic system doesn’t create any “barriers to immediate worker access in each workplace.”

WHY WRONG ANSWERS ARE WRONG

A is wrong because the lab trained workers how to use the electronic SDS system to make them more comfortable with it. Assuming that four hours of training is enough, the workers should be able to access the SDSs with no problem.

B is wrong because training is only half of the answer. In an interpretation letter, OSHA emphasized that for an electronic SDS system to comply with Hazcom, the employer must also:

  • Make sure the computers for accessing electronic SDSs are reliable and readily accessible;
  • Provide an adequate back-up system so workers can still access SDSs during emergencies; and
  • Ensure that workers can get hard copies of SDS’ if they want them.

C is wrong because while employers must make hard copies of SDSs available to workers, they don’t have to keep a binder of them at the worksite. Another method of making hard copies available would be to let workers print the SDS from the electronic access system.

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