So, you've decided to automate your material safety data sheets (MSDS). Enough of those nightmares about not being in compliance or dealing with disgruntled employees and their union reps. You're exhausted with manually keeping those thousands of MSDS up to date in cumbersome, archaic binders. You've finally taken the big step and decided to purchase MSDS management software.

Think your worries are over? Think again.

Avoid the pitfalls

The automation of MSDS requires several crucial steps that can become just as many stumbling blocks. Let's look at a few of these steps and, more importantly, let's see how to avoid some of the pitfalls.

1) Needs analysis. Before making any purchase, make sure that you have thoroughly analyzed your needs all down the line and are in a position to identify software that will meet them well. All too often, after implementing new software, you discover - too late - that your needs were poorly or only partially defined. The day you set out to produce your first environmental report, you discover that your software doesn't allow you to do so.

2) Software selection. To start with, how do you choose from the many software packages on the market? How do you know which one is best for you? The answer: Do your research, shop around and get advice from satisfied customers.

3) Database creation. Now this, you say, has got to be easy! Not true. Your database is the heart and soul of the whole MSDS management system. The absolute correctness of the database is paramount. A database cannot be 80 percent correct; it's either 100 percent correct or totally useless. Garbage in, garbage out.

Who will you assign to data entry? It's very important to always use the same well trained staff for this essential activity. Many firms use employees on temporary assignment, or maybe employees convalescing from minor injuries. This means there is never a steady pool of well trained workers, who comprehend the importance of the task, who are motivated - and still around later to correct their own mistakes. And think of the time and cost of constantly training new staff and setting up efficient control systems to catch and correct the errors.

After you've scanned your thousands of MSDS, you're ready to index each and every one of them, so that you and your employees will later be able to find exactly what you are looking for. Establish a protocol for data entry. Which key words will you enter? Among these should be manufacturer's name, product (or a synonym), date, product code, ingredients (or components), etc. For the manufacturer's name, what precise information will you enter? You must establish a standard and stick to it with a vengeance. If you think the name Liquid Air is the same as Air Liquid, you're in big trouble.

The same goes for product labels. Decide what text should appear on the printed label, and determine the size of the labels, as well as the way they will be created. You must also define who will have access to these labels. If the database hasn't been properly set up, the day you decide to print a label, you may be in for a surprise.

4) Database maintenance. Every time a chemical manufacturer modifies even the smallest element on a MSDS, you must ensure that the most up-to-date version is made available to your employees. Since you've been manually updating your MSDS for years, you know this is a never-ending process: identifying which MSDS have become outdated, contacting the manufacturer to obtain an updated version and integrating the new version.

Just because you now operate on MSDS management software doesn't mean the process is over. You have to scan and re-index your MSDS all over again. Who will have this responsibility? How fast can this be done? How much will this cost?

5) Cost budgeting. It's one thing to budget the annual cost of managing your MSDS but quite another challenge to evaluate the unexpected or hidden costs. However, anticipating these hidden costs and budgeting them can help to keep costs down and balance the books at year end.

6) IT, server, network and installation. Your IT department will have to be there to support you at installation time and throughout the year. You may have to juggle priorities with other departments to get your system up and running on time. Before going online with your new system, you and your IT department will have to do a dry run. Your firm's server may be down too often to your taste. And that's a major problem, because when the server is down, you're not in compliance.

Think it through

The bottom line is, you need to think carefully before embarking on the adventure of converting your manual system to a software-based MSDS management system. Unless you can clearly say that you will be able to devote all the time, money and energy required to become functional quickly, think twice and then think again. Nearly 80 percent of EHS managers who purchase an MSDS software package find themselves in exactly the same position one year later. They have not been able to successfully automate their MSDS management system and are still relying on their old binders.

If you recognize yourself in this picture, you could be a candidate for the more contemporary online ASP management services, or you should use the services of a firm specialized in MSDS management. With some of these firms, updates are automatic and you're notified every time an update is made. It will keep you in full compliance, and your employees and unions will be happy.

SIDEBAR: MSDS Automation Process

  • Needs analysis
  • Committee approval
  • Analysis of IT constraints
  • Bidding process - Purchasing Dept.
  • Meetings with suppliers
  • Selection of supplier / product
  • Purchase of management software
  • Software installment
  • Tests
  • Software functional
  • Training - IT staff
  • Preparation of database
  • Training - users
  • Maintenance of database - updating of MSDS