MSDS Online FAQ by [email protected]

Where should I put them?

If you have a home page, a single directory for all your MSDSs (e.g. will make them much easier to find quickly. If you don't we will provide a directory for you on at no charge.

How should they be indexed?

The most common error is an MSDS index that is to complex. If you have less than about 200 products, a plain alphabetical index by product name is best, with each product name linked to the MSDS. This doesn't require any "MSDS Management" software, just plain html. There's nothing wrong with the product list including links to the label, instructions, specifications, or even an order form, as well as the MSDS. But please try to stick to one line per product, or scrolling will be impractical and confusing.

If you have hndreds of products, a searchable index may be needed. I suggest you make it fast and simple, and avoid graphics. Most people who need an MSDS aren't there to be entertained. Mallincrodt Baker has one that allows customers to automatically link the chemicals on an internal inventory list to the proper MSDSs on the manufacturer's website. If you order product numeber 3688, you can use a script to automatically generate the actual URL of the MSDS for product 3688, by plugging the product number into a simple URL:

and put a link to it in your internal online inventory list, like this:

Baker -- Sodium Fluoride -- MSDS

Your employees can get the MSDS if they need it, and you don't have to do any manual work, except to verify you have the correct product number, by making sure the link points to the right MSDS. If you're a manufacturer and want to do this for the MSDSs you provide to customers, anyone familiar with PERL or PHP could set up something similar. No paper; what could be simpler?

What makes a good MSDS

I have been an emergency physician for 15 years, and have worked with recue and fire professionals and safety engineers, and I think the worst thing you can do is treat an MSDS like a legal document and fill it with meaningless generalities. The legal disclaimers and inapplicable statements on many MSDS's make it so hard to find the real information that some are almost useless. There is not a single case on record where legal disclaimers or useless information ever helped a manufacturer. My suggestion is to have a real live person cross out everything that wouldn't actually help prevent or respond to an emergency. By the way, OSHA does not require an MSDS to contain disclaimers or information about hazards that don't apply to a material, e.g. there is absolutely no reason to include the line

"Hazardous Polymerization: Not Applicable"

in any MSDS. If the material isn't subject to hazardous polymerization it makes no more sense than saying

"Nuclear Fission: Not Applicable"

If on the other hand, a material may undergo hazardous polymerization simply saying "may occur" isn't adequate; OSHA requires you to state the situation under which it may occur, e.g. "Hazardous polymerization: Explosive polymers may form spontaneously around the container cap during prologed storage" or "May polymerize rapidly with explosive force in the presence of platinum catylist or reducing agents" If your lawyers want to document that you considered a hazard and decided it wasn't applicable, the place to do that is in your company files, not in the MSDS an emergency responder may have only minutes to read. Take a look at the ANSI MSDS format. It is not required. If you use it please keep the actual text free of meaningless discalimers.

What format should I use?

Simply having the information online, together with a simple, compact MSDS index page is the main thing, and ascii text, html, or pdf can do an adequate job.

Here are MSDSs in preformatted text or standard html without images, on a white background. These are the fastest and clearest formats, and I recommend them.

If you insist on a complex graphical MSDS, PDF format is the best choice. But it is adesigned for printing on paper. It is slower to download and display and more difficult to read onscreen unless the user has a 1000x700 pixel monitor. If you print an MSDS on paper, you then have to manage that piece of paper for the next 30 years, at great expense. It is much more efficient to use onscreen access to meet OSHA requirements and print a copy only when an employee requests it or its needed somewhere the Internet doesn't reach. That said, simply having the information available on the internet is the main thing. If you have only PDF available by all means use it.

HTML is designed to be readable onscreen, takes up less disk space, and downloads much faster. Plus, anyone who can access the Internet can read it. MSDSs are text, might be needed by anyone, and are often needed in a hurry. Please do not use font size commands for the main text. They often make the font to small to read. Just use the default style in Netscape Composer, or "remove all styles" or use plain ascii text. All these approaches leave the text whatever size has been selected as readible by the user. You can use boldface or level 3 or 4 headlines for headings. Unfortunately Microsoft Frontpage seems to set a font size by default, which makes the font too large for some users or too small for others.

If you must include graphics in an html document it is best to embed them in the html file or insert hem with absolute URLSs so if a user downloads just the MSDS text, the graphics will still appear when it is viewed.

What if other people download my MSDS and change it?

It is perfectly legal for them to do so; employers are required by the OSHA to provide an MSDS for their employees, but they are not required to use the MSDS provided by the manufacturer. In many cases the information provided in the manufacturer's MSDS (i.e. recommended PPE) is at variance with the employer's actual practice. Assuming the employer is following safe practices, it makes far better sense to change the MSDS to reflect what the employer actually wants his employees to do than to make it appear the MSDS is being ignored. While lawyers often claim modification of the MSDS can cause legal risks, I have not yet heard from any lawyer who could report a single legal case where this caused a problem. Indeed, legal cases where the MSDS is a factor at all are as rare as hen's teeth.

Should I sell my MSDSs on CD-ROM?

It depends on whether you are in the CD-ROM business or the chemical product business. If you sell your MSDS data you will have no choice but to restrict access to your safety information, to protect its value. If you do this, eventually it will not be available in a situation where it is needed, and someone will get hurt as a result. If you make it available freely on the Internet, it will be less expensive for customers to use your chemical products, and no one makes nearly as much money selling MSDSs as they do selling chemicals.

I realize it's hard for managers to be convinced they should give something away free. Some types of corporate information must be protected, and some can be sold. But some knowledge should be given away, even if you have no interest other than profits. Think of every MSDS for your products as an advertisement telling potential customers "if you buy me, you won't have to track down an MSDS, because you already have one."

There are other reasons some may understand. Most scientific and technological progress in the last five centuries, including the Internet itself, was the work of people of genius who could have sold their knowledge and become rich, but instead chose to give it away - and change the world.