With an estimated 650,000 hazardous chemicals in the workplace, tens of thousands of chemical manufacturers creating material safety data sheets and a vague OSHA standard defining its framework, we are left with a discombobulated mess of MSDSs. Yet, we are required by law to maintain them in the workplace for our employees.

To the average worker, a material safety data sheet is a complicated document that he or she needs to be able to locate in an emergency or during an OSHA audit. Compliance is typically maintained by stuffing the MSDSs into a binder that may or may not be accessible, orderly, or even legible once located.

Some businesses have taken a more advanced approach by using software and/or Internet services that provide access to manufacturer-original documents. While practical and cost-effective these systems fail to address the basic issues surrounding MSDSs and provide little use, if any, to the workers that the HazCom Standard set out to protect in the first place.

The root of MSDS issues

What good is an MSDS if you need a Ph.D. to understand it? Let alone decipher the format, interpret the toxicological findings, locate the information needed and comprehend the chemical terminology the Ph.D. used to write it.

Add in a worker with a learning disability or the chaos caused by a chemical accident. Now how easily can that MSDS be read?

A negative attitude toward MSDSs has existed in the workplace since the inception of the Hazard Communication standard. A urethane supplier expressed its resentment of the regulation on its Web site by saying:

"Granted, nobody ever looks at these things, but some guy sitting in his air-conditioned office in Washington, D.C., has decided that you are required to keep these on file. He feels like he is doing his "job." Anyway, if some inspector is at your place asking to see copies of your MSDSs, we've got them here for you."

Solving the problem

In recent years, applications have become available from select Internet companies (ASPs) that solve compliance issues and provide a universally understandable MSDS for workers. These Web-based services are able to protect people from the mismanagement of chemicals by offering a variety of functions and features that not only allow access to MSDSs, but help workers understand the information.

Here's what to look for:

1) Easy to read

A key factor is having a MSDS system that harmonizes all documents into a consistent format making them easy to read. The manufacturer-original may be available as well, but for practical purposes employees with limited training cannot be expected to find information across a variety of formats and qualities.

A typical MSDS has been fed through a fax machine two to three times, its quality has been severely degraded and the burden to decipher the hieroglyphic (weathered, tarnished) document has been left to the individuals who need it the most.

The UN has recognized the need for such a system and recently adopted "The Globally Harmonized System for the Labeling and Classification of Chemicals" in Geneva after a decade of efforts and cooperation amongst a broad number of countries and organizations.

2) Fully searchable

Locating information within an MSDS or simply finding the correct one can be an arduous task for workers when they are uncertain of the chemical name. A comprehensive word or term search throughout the entire body of text is vital to workers.

Let's say a worker comes across a yellow liquid on the floor that has a pungent odor. How can they be expected to find the appropriate MSDS if the only search criteria they can use is the chemical or manufacturer name?

3) Dictionary reference & speech-enabling

Understanding the information in the MSDS once the worker finds it can be facilitated with the latest dictionary reference systems. This unique feature allows the worker to submit an unknown word or term at the click of a button to a dictionary containing over 100,000 chemical definitions.

Considering 92 million people have difficulty reading and another 42 million people are dyslexic, expecting workers to understand MSDS terminology is unrealistic. Newly designed MSDS applications further support workers with disabilities by allowing MSDS phrases to be read out loud by the computer.

4) Complete compliance

OSHA's HazCom standard requires chemical containers to be appropriately labeled and employees to be trained in MSDS access and understanding. Many MSDS systems fail to address the critical issue of label application. Since the information needed on the container label comes from the MSDS, some systems have integrated labeling programs that allow one-mouse-click printing of the appropriate label. These MSDS generated labels include universally understandable pictograms such as the NFPA diamond or HMIS barcode. This eliminates the need to find the "appropriate hazardous warning" from the MSDS and hand-write the information on the label.

5) Hazard classification

Additional system capabilities include grouping or classifying chemicals based on reported hazard criteria in the MSDS. This can be a straightforward comparison with a Federal regulatory list like TSCA, or an advanced screening such as: a chemical with a flash point under 100 degrees Fahrenheit, is a liquid, and contains Methyl Ethyl Ketone. Classification criteria are limitless and provide information to safety managers for improving everyday job functions.

Electronic systems help maintain OSHA compliance to the strictest sense by providing access to documents, but most of these systems fail to provide a universally understandable MSDS that helps employees comprehend the hazardous information and protective measures he or she will need to know in an emergency.