Target audience for this page is anyone who is unfamiliar with the chemical industry.

Absolute beginners

For many decades, all developed countries have had laws which insist that chemical products sold for use in the workplace MUST be accompanied by a safety data sheet (SDS). This is part of the normal overhead of being on the supply-side in the chemical industry.

Ditto for safety information on labels on chemical products sold to consumers.

In the beginning every country went its own way and the chemical industry had to rewrite or reformat their SDSs for individual markets with different regulations and different layouts. The 16 section UN layout was eventually adopted for the GHS.

But the harmonised layout was just the beginning. The important differences were - and still are - regulatory. Just how hazardous might a particular substance be? Even today it is possible for the same product to be hazardous in one jurisdiction and because of less rigorous regulations appear to be non-hazardous in another.

The Globally Harmonized System

The UN Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, or GHS, is commonly known as the "Purple Book". You can see why if you visit that link! You can download the purple book from here.

It has been a long time coming but countries all over the planet have framed or are framing legislation which adopts the GHS. It was (patchily) enacted in Australia in late 2012. It is already law in New Zealand and a number of other countries.

Pros and cons

Due to widespread differences of tightly held opinion, the UN committee of experts promulgated the GHS with a "building block" approach. This meant that different countries could keep their own regulatory preferences and yet still adopt the GHS. A true masterpiece of political compromise!

Unfortunately, this means that jurisdictions have no real incentive to harmonise their regulations with those of any other jurisdictions. There is strong bias against any local change in all jurisdictions. Change is always costly and only benefits exporters for whom regulatory harmonisation is important. Nevertheless, the GHS is a good step in the right direction. 

Most individuals in the chemical industry assume harmonisation will happen over time. However, where local industry retains a voice it always resists change. Politicians always listen locally and act locally. True harmonisation might be quite some time indeed - and that is not good for workers exposed to less rigorous juridictions nor for the local economy in overly-rigorous jurisdictions.

What is a Safety Data Sheet?

Put simply, a GHS SDS is a multi-page document with sixteen sections covering everything needed to manage a chemical product safely in the workplace.

They used to be called Material Safety Data Sheets or MSDSs. In fact they will still be called that for some time because they have a "life" of five years. By law they must be reviewed by a competent person and re-issued at least every five years.

In Australia, theoretically, the last MSDS will have been replaced by a GHS-style SDS by 1 January 2017* - but experts predict it will be closer to 2020!

Piracy or plagiary

Not so long ago, safety data sheets were photocopied, letterheads cut and pasted and then reprinted or photocopied for locally rebadged or repackaged product. Whether this was done with the manufacturer's permission or not is immaterial.

The real problems with this methodology are:

  • Changes to safety information cannot propagate quickly or reliably
  • Stale information is useless, possibly worse than useless, in the workplace

Nowadays, there are many suppliers of SDS authoring systems and most produce pdf format safety data sheets. Many include a watermark in the output to prevent unauthorised copying and pasting. So it is still very much a mindset or perceived problem in the industry.

With current database and web technology there is no longer any need for scissors and paste.

With internet communications there is no longer any excuse for information to go stale in the workplace.

With SharedSDS licensed sharing there is no longer any need for piracy.


* 1 January 2017 is well behind us now and old-style labelling and SDSs are still widespread in Australia.