A printing company in Maryland recently purchased a fax-on-demand service for retrieving material safety data sheets (MSDS). The phones on the shop floor were all labeled with the 800 number for contacting the service. All the employee had to do was call the number and obtain the current MSDS on any chemical he or she needed.

The company had the service a short time when an employee got a rash from a solvent that had spilled on his hand. His co-workers called the MSDS service and took the employee to a hospital a couple of miles away. By the time they got there, the most up-to-date version of the chemical's MSDS had been faxed and forwarded to the hospital, and the fax service was on the phone with the hospital staff providing them with information about the chemical and its treatment. Thanks to the quick transmittal of information and treatment, the employee returned to work that day.

Many companies recognize the advantages of electronic MSDSs. In fact, many would like to do away with the cumbersome paper filing systems in favor of electronic systems (e.g., fax-back, CD-ROM, customized database or Internet). What does OSHA say about the issue? Some companies worry that OSHA may penalize them if they do not have a paper backup system. Maintaining both systems can be costly.

According to OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200(g)), all employers must have the latest MSDSs available in the workplace for every hazardous or toxic substance that the company uses. An MSDS contains comprehensive technical information about a particular substance and explains the risks, precautions and response actions related to exposure to hazardous chemicals, both during normal work shifts and in emergency situations.

What OSHA will cite

All employees must be able to access MSDSs at all times, meaning the MSDS access management system must always be functional. What conditions will prompt an OSHA inspector to consider a citation?

Failure to provide an MSDS. The failure to provide any MSDS at all is generally considered by OSHA an "other than serious" violation. A citation could be issued, but oftentimes it will not be if the employer has demonstrated a good faith effort to obtain the information and does not have a history of repeated violations. It becomes "serious" when the failure to provide an MSDS can contribute to a chemical exposure capable of causing a potential death or serious injury. Citations are not issued to the employer for incomplete or inaccurate MSDSs; the accuracy of information is the responsibility of the chemical manufacturer, distributor or importer. Violations may also be cited when an employer using electronic access as an integral part of the hazard communication program does not have an adequate backup system to address emergency situations.

Barrier to MSDS access. The OSHA regulation (29 CFR 1910.1200(g)) says, "Electronic access, microfiche, and other alternatives to maintaining paper copies of [MSDSs] are permitted as long as no barriers to immediate employee access in each workplace are created by such options." For example, in the case of a fax-back service, OSHA would consider a failure to provide immediate employee access to a fax machine or to train employees how to contact the service barriers to access and subject to a citation.

Inadequate backup system. OSHA has stated in several interpretation letters that the employer must ensure that there is an adequate backup system for rapid access to hazard information in the event of an emergency, including power outages, equipment failure and online access delays. In case of an emergency, the employer must ensure that emergency response personnel are immediately provided with hard copies of MSDSs.

No written hazard communication plan. The lack of a written HazCom plan is one of the most often cited safety and health violations. A citation is more likely to be written for a missing MSDS if there is no written HazCom plan.

Making sure

Here's how to make sure your MSDS access management system complies with OSHA requirements:

  • Describe in your written HazCom plan the process for accessing MSDSs. The description must include the person(s) responsible for obtaining and maintaining the MSDSs, how they are maintained in the workplace, procedures to follow when the MSDS has not been received, and a description of alternatives to obtaining MSDS information (the backup system).

  • Make sure that employees can immediately obtain the required MSDS in an emergency. "Immediately" means, in emergencies, during the work shift that the MSDS is requested; in non-emergency situations, by the next work shift after the MSDS is requested. Reading MSDSs over the phone is not an option, except when employees must travel between workplaces during the work shift and require the information in an emergency.

  • Provide a backup system. If a fax-back service is your primary system, another electronic system may serve as a backup as long as it is not subject to the same barriers as the primary system. If a power outage will render the fax machine and computer inoperable in an emergency, make sure other arrangements to contact the chemical manufacturer, distributor or other MSDS provider by cell phone or other means have been made to obtain the MSDS. Otherwise, an onsite paper filing system may be necessary. Either way, document the procedure.

  • Periodically test your primary and backup systems. Run through an emergency access scenario with your access provider and your employees. Record the results and put them with your written HazCom plan.

    Document, test & demonstrate

    Electronic MSDS management systems have many advantages over paper filing systems. OSHA may accept their use as primary access systems, but still stresses the importance of fail-safe backup systems to ensure availability in emergencies. As with any other recordkeeping responsibility, document your procedures, test the integrity of the system, and demonstrate your ability to correct deficiencies quickly.