What are Safety Data Sheets and why are they important? Part one

SAFETY data sheets part 1

If you’re working with chemicals, safety data sheets (SDSs) are essential, so that you are aware of the hazards and risks associated with using and handling the material. SDSs also help you understand how different substances react under certain circumstances and if there are any special precautions that need to be taken. Morag McWilliam and Tristan Pulford explain in this article how this is important because materials need to be stored and handled correctly. There are further implications with regard to regulations such as DSEAR (Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations) and COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health).

What is a Safety Data Sheet?

It is a document that provides information on the potential hazards, uses and safe handling of material.

In the UK, SDS is regulated by REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & Restriction of Chemicals).

(Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the EU REACH Regulation was brought into UK law on 1 January 2021 and is known as UK REACH.

REACH, and related legislation was replicated in the UK with the changes needed to make it operable in a domestic context. The REACH Statutory Instruments that made these changes can be found on The key principles of the EU REACH Regulation were retained in UK REACH.

The UK REACH and the EU REACH regulations operate independently from each other. You must ensure you comply with both regulations, where necessary.

UK REACH regulates chemicals placed on the market in GB.

Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, EU REACH continues to apply in Northern Ireland.

In older documentation or that which is used outside the UK, you may see a reference to Material Safety Data Sheets. In many cases, a Material Safety Data Sheet and a Safety Data Sheet are the same documents. However, the UK’s correct title is SDS and has 16 sections. Other countries use MSDS more commonly and these documents may have different sections. When checking SDS online ensure that you use the UK version with all 16 sections. ​

All the information within an SDS will be relevant to the substances, however, the information that will be relevant to you will depend on a number of factors including, but not limited to; ​

  • Name of the substance.
  • Identifying information – manufacturer’s name and address, product name, etc.
  • Physical data—appearance, odour, flashpoint (the temperature at which it will ignite), boiling point (the temperature at which it evaporates), density/specific gravity (how much it weighs per unit volume), etc. This can help you determine whether or not the substance is flammable or combustible, which could be an issue if you’re working with something like paint or fuel.
  • Whether or not it reacts with water; whether there are any hazardous reactions that could occur when mixing different chemicals together; how corrosive it is; how easily absorbed into the skin; flammability; carcinogenicity and toxicity.

Of particular importance will be the information contained in Section 2 Hazard Identification.

This section includes information on:

  • Chemical and physical properties.

Classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures Regulations (CLP) are the UK regulations that enforce the United Nations’ Globally Harmonised system classification and labelling of chemicals (GHS).

The Regulations use 9 pictograms and identify the hazards of the chemicals in the state in which they are transported.​

  • Signal word.

After the pictogram may be a signal word (this is optional) that indicates the severity of the warnings. The lower hazard is ‘Warning’, and the higher hazard is ‘Danger’.​

  • Hazard or H statements.

3 groups about how the substance may harm people.

– Physical Hazards H200 – H290, 35 phrases​
– Health Hazards H300 – H373, 38 phases that are used individually and 17 phases that combine 2 or more risks together​
– Environmental Hazards H400 – H433, 9 phrases​

  • Precautionary or P statements.

advise about the storage and use of the substance and has 5 groups; ​

– General (standard good practice) P101 – P103, 3 phrases ​
– Prevention (lowers the likelihood of exposure) P201 – P284, 34 individual phrases and 2 that combine 2 or more ​
– Reponses (lowers the consequences of exposure) P301 – P391, 46 individual phases and 24 phrases that combine 2 or more​
– Storage (safe storage) P401 – P422, 13 individual phrases and 6 phrases that combine 2 or more ​
– Disposal P501 – P502, 2 individual phrases ​

Details of Hazard statements, precautionary statements and signal words together with greater detail on SDSs can be found in Annex 1 here (current at the time of writing): GHS_Rev9E_0.pdf (

Please note that H and P phrases replaced the S and R phrases, so if the SDS you are working with uses S or R phases, it will not be the most current version and you should contact the supplier to access the current version.​

If you want to talk about anything you have read here please contact [email protected] or [email protected]. Part two is coming soon.

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