What are GHS Safety Data Sheets?
Updated: May 4
The Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling (GHS) is the current, internationally established standard for defining and classifying the myriad hazards of the chemical products we use and trade every day.
The GHS was developed specifically to tackle the growing global issue of confusion between regulatory bodies around the world.
Every country has different laws that dictate how companies must identify the properties of chemicals and hazardous substances and how that information is communicated to users.
You will find that one chemical can have several different hazard descriptions depending on the country you're in. If you're buying your chemicals from abroad you run the risk of receiving the wrong safety data and endangering yourself and your workers.
Imagine inadvertently installing insufficient control measures and someone becoming injured because of it.
The problem this caused was recognised as an important global issue in 1992 and 2002, at the Earth Summit and the World Summit, respectively.
Why is the GHS necessary?
The GHS will eventually harmonise all hazard and safety information around the world. You'll find that regulatory bodies everywhere will have better communication, promoting regulatory efficiency and global trade.
Compliance will become far easier to achieve, as everyone around the world will be reading from the same safety data sheet. The costs of constantly reviewing and updating mismatched information will be a thing of the past.
All of the information provided will be consistent - from manufacturer to end-user - promoting safer transport and handling of chemicals as well as reducing emergency response times.
The GHS encompasses all known chemicals and can be adapted to cover any hazardous substances that may arise at work. Either through transport, a work process or the creation of products.
In Europe, the European Union developed the CLP regulations to align their system of classification, labelling and packaging of chemical products to Globally Harmonised System.
Who developed the GHS?
In an effort to bring about an agreement between the Standards and chemical regulations of different countries, the United Nations created the GHS.
Many experts from around the world were brought together to design a set of guidelines to ensure the safety of anyone involved in the production, handling, use, disposal or transport of hazardous substances internationally.
The intention of the UN is that every country will integrate the GHS into their own regulatory systems, promoting safer international trade and safer working conditions for all workers exposed to hazardous substances.
What is a GHS Safety Data Sheet?
Safety data sheets (SDS) are a critically important part of the GHS and global chemical safety. They provide extensive information on a substance, its supplier and the safe handling and use of it.
You are then able to conduct chemical risk assessments around your workplace and ensure that each area is safe for work. You can't do a real COSHH assessment without the proper SDS.
How Many Sections does a GHS Safety Data Sheet Contain?
The GHS SDS format has been harmonised so that information is easily found and shared with the right people. If you find you need to author your own SDS, there are 16 sections to a standard GHS safety data sheet and each section requires specific information:
All hazardous chemicals - both pure substances and mixtures - are required to have a safety data sheet published in the REACH-compliant format.
Each subsection - regardless of the subsection not applying to the product or there being no information available - must be filled in. If there is no information for the subsection, or it doesn't apply, it must contain a statement which points that out.
Chemicals that are classified as non-hazardous generally do not require a safety data sheet to be published. However, there are certain circumstances where the SDS is still required. Manufacturers will often supply a safety data sheet for every single one of their products, regardless of their classification.
Who Should Receive Safety Data Sheets?
Where a manufacturer supplies a hazardous chemical, they are legally required to supply a safety data sheet. Ideally, they would send the safety data sheet before the product is delivered to your premises so you can make yourself aware of the hazards before you handle it.
However - at the latest and no later - they may send the SDS with the product itself. This is a legal requirement.
Safety data sheets are generally received by employers - or their health and safety management team - who will implement the proper controls and procedures for safe use and handling and receive the hazardous chemical delivery.
Any SDS received at your premises may be addressed to a specific individual within your organisation, or it may be addressed to your organisation itself.
Either way, it is the responsibility of the person receiving the safety data sheet to pass on the document to the relevant person. This is generally the employer or the health and safety team who will conduct risk assessments and implement control measures.
It is a legal requirement that the recipient receives an actual document and not a link to a website where they can download it.
Why are Safety Data Sheets Important?
Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, employers have a duty placed upon them to give their employees information, instruction and training on the risks to their health present in the workplace and the precautions they will take to ensure everyone is protected from those risks.
To properly protect your employees - and comply with the duties placed upon you by the regulations - you must carry out risk assessments throughout your premises before you allow the handling or use of hazardous chemicals.
Safety data sheets - often referred to as COSHH data sheets - contain critical information on the hazards and other properties of a hazardous substance.
To properly assess the risk you must take the information from the safety data sheet and consider it together with the manner in which the hazardous substance will be used in your workplace.
Please note: Safety data sheets are not in themselves risk assessments. However, they do provide some necessary information to enable you to carry out thorough risk assessments.
An SDS is the primary method a manufacturer or importer of hazardous substances has to properly communicate the hazards and other relevant safety information to the people who will actually use them.
The information contained in safety data sheets should be regularly reviewed by the manufacturer, and where they find new information on a substance or mixture or the regulations, they must immediately communicate the changes to all downstream users by the provision of an updated SDS.
Manufacturers and suppliers should check their safety data sheets as soon as a change in the regulations occurs. If the update is due to a significant change in the regulations, then those revisions must be highlighted for you by the manufacturer or supplier.
Where you recognise that no update has been highlighted after a significant change you must immediately request an update SDS from your supplier.
Extended Safety Data Sheets
It is a requirement of the European Union's REACH Regulations that substances manufactured or imported above a certain threshold must have a chemical safety assessment carried out upon them.
A chemical safety assessment is a thorough assessment of the hazards inherent in the hazardous substance(s) and must include the development of exposure scenarios (Please see Section 16 for more information on exposure scenarios.)
The exposure scenarios of a substance should be added to its safety data sheet, making it an extended safety data sheet (ext-SDS or e-SDS). This is a legal requirement.
If the product is a mixture and contains substances which have been given a chemical risk assessment then the exposure scenarios from each of those substances' safety data sheet should be included in the SDS of the mixture. This information can be communicated through an annexe or integrated into the main sections of the mixture's safety data sheet.
How Often do Safety Data Sheets Need to be Updated?
There can be some confusion when it comes to what constitutes a significant enough amount of informational change to warrant a review and update of a safety data sheet.
Manufacturers and suppliers are required to review and update their safety data sheets periodically, adding new-found information within three months. But, what about the end-user?
To ensure everyone's safety, it doesn't matter if you're a supplier or a user, you should regularly review all of your safety data sheets. You should also regularly contact the manufacturer to inquire about the product.
Any changes to product information, hazard information or information about the correct control measures should be immediately updated so that anyone using it has the right information.
Are you struggling to extract information from your safety data sheets? Learn through free health and safety certifications, including the Safety Data Sheet Awareness Certification brought to you by the International Association for Chemical Safety.