Guide to Safety Data Sheet Basics

In today’s dynamic workplace, a comprehensive understanding of safety data sheets is paramount for ensuring safety, compliance, and informed-decision making. This SDS guide is aimed at equipping workers and employers with all of the basic SDS information they need to do just that.

SDS Guide Contents: 

What is a Safety Data Sheet?

The Safety Data Sheet or SDS is a document that helps you to identify hazardous materials and gives you full details on what the hazards are. SDSs provide more detailed hazard information about the product than the label. It also provides instructions on how to work safely with the hazardous product by breaking down the steps you need to take if there ever is an emergency. 

What are the 4 fundamental questions answered on an SDS?

You should be familiar with the hazards of a product before you start to use it. Ensure the product name on the container is an exact match with the SDS. Here are some basic questions you need to be able to answer before you work safely with a product:

  1. What is this product? (section 1: Product Identification) 
  2. What are the hazards? (section 2: Hazard Identification)
  3. How do I work with this safely? (section 7: Handling and Storage) 
  4. What do I do in an emergency? (section 4, 5, and 6: First Aid, Fire Fighting Measures, and Accidental Release Measures)

Is a Safety Data Sheet mandatory?

In Canada, under WHMIS 2015, a Safety Data Sheet is mandatory and required by law. If a product is classified as a "hazardous product" under WHMIS and is intended for use, handling or storage in a workplace in Canada, it must have an SDS. If there is no SDS for a product, it can’t legally be used in the workplace. If a product arrives in the workplace without an SDS, the product needs to be quarantined until an SDS is located and made available. 

How many sections are on an SDS?

The SDS is required to be written in a consistent 16-section user-friendly format.

What information is on an SDS?

The information on an SDS is broken out into 16 sections. Each section has a unique purpose and content.

SDS Section 1: Product Identification

The information in this section must be an exact match to the identification section on the supplier label. Here you will find the name of the product, the name of the manufacturer, the name of the supplier, plus their address and emergency phone numbers. In section 1 you will also find recommended uses and restrictions on use.

SDS Section 2: Hazard Identification

The information in this section is similar to what you find on a supplier label. Here you will find the hazard pictograms as well as the signal word ‘Danger’ or ‘Warning’ for the product.  Danger represents a higher hazard than ‘Warning’. It also contains the hazard statements and the precautionary statements. 

SDS Section 3: Composition / Information on Ingredients

This section gives details on the composition of the product and information on the ingredients. Chemical products can contain multiple ingredients. Section 3 names them and tells you the concentrations of each hazardous ingredient. It also lists the CAS Number for each of the ingredients. These numbers are used to research chemical properties. If there are any trade secrets for the product they will be listed here. 

SDS Section 4: First Aid Measures

This section provides first aid measures for exposure to the product. You will learn what steps to take depending on how the person came into contact with the product. For example, was it inhaled or swallowed? Section 4 also lists symptoms of overexposure.

SDS Section 5: Fire Fighting Measures

This section is typically used by firefighters and emergency planners. It outlines appropriate firefighting techniques, the type of fire extinguishing materials that should be used in a fire, as well as the chemical hazards from the fire. Section 5 also outlines the type of protective equipment and any special precautions firefighters should take.

SDS Section 6: Accidental Release Measures

This section addresses accidental release measures such as the proper methods of containment and cleanup for a spill; what emergency procedure you should follow if you need to eliminate ignition sources; and the type of protective equipment required during cleanup. 

SDS Section 7: Handling and Storage

This section gives instructions for safe handling and storage of the product. It identifies any incompatible materials. 

SDS Section 8: Exposure Controls and Personal Protection

This section deals with exposure controls and personal protection for the product. It describes what PPE is needed to work safely with the product, as well as the engineering controls needed for safe use. Section 8 also gives you applicable exposure limits for the product; limits can vary by federal or provincial/state regulations. 

SDS Section 9: Physical and Chemical Properties

This section provides engineers, scientists and regulatory authorities with the complete technical description of the physical and chemical properties of the product. Is it a solid, liquid or gas? What is the colour? Does it have an odour? What is the boiling point, freezing point and flash point for the product? Is there an explosion potential for the product?

SDS Section 10: Stability and Reactivity 

This section provides stability and reactivity details for the product. Is the product chemically stable? What materials could it react with that it should be kept away from? Does the product decompose into other hazardous products? What other conditions should be avoided?

SDS Section 11: Toxicological Information

This section is written for health professionals, describing short-term and long-term health effects. It explains how the product can enter your body, eyes, skin, ingestion and inhalation. It will tell you which internal organs are at risk if you use the product. It will tell you if the product can cause cancer and if it is toxic to reproductive systems, or if the product can lead to chronic long term respiratory or skin issues. 

SDS Section 12: Ecological Information

This section tells you if the product is toxic to the air, soil or water. It will also tell you if the product is a short-term or long-term threat to the environment. 

SDS Section 13: Disposal Considerations

This section tells you how to dispose of the product and its container. It describes any product residues and outlines any special handling procedures. 

SDS Section 14: Transport Information

This section details how to ship the product safely. Regulatory information will be listed such as the UN Number for the product, the Proper Shipping Name, as well as the Transportation Hazard Classes. This will help you determine what hazard placards need to be displayed during transport. Any special transportation provisions will be listed such as packing group and bulk transport details.

SDS Section 15: Regulatory Information

This section lists any regulatory information for the product. If there are any additional local, provincial/state or federal regulations for health, safety, or the environment, it may be listed here. 

SDS Section 16: Other Information

This section tells you who prepared the SDS and when it was written. It may include a glossary to explain any abbreviations in the SDS. It can also include other references and disclaimers.  

Who writes the SDS?

SDSs are usually written by the manufacturer, supplier, or importer of the product. In some cases, the employer has to write the SDS but only if the product is produced and used exclusively in the same workplace. 

Who is a Safety Data Sheet written for?

An SDS is a guide for many different people who may use the product. This can be for supervisors and workers, firefighters, physicians, occupational hygienists, health & safety supervisors, engineers and environmental specialists. SDSs are not generally provided for consumers because the risk is higher for someone who is working with the hazardous product in an occupational setting. For instance, homeowners may use a can of paint once a year, but a painter may use that same paint for 40 hours a week and their exposure and risk to the hazards of the products is much greater.

Where can I get a Safety Data Sheet?

When you purchase a product, the suppler provides the SDS in English and French (in Canada), to the purchaser of the hazardous product at the time of sale. You may receive a printed copy or an electronic copy of the SDS (like an email with an SDS attachment). Most SDSs are prepared by the manufacturer or supplier of the product. You can check the manufacturer’s website or contact them to get SDSs as needed. Chemscape's sdsBinders is an SDS Management Software that specializes in providing this service, which saves clients time so that they can focus on other priorities. 

When do you need an SDS in Canada?

Every product that is classified as a "hazardous product" under WHMIS and is used, handled or stored in a workplace in Canada must have an SDS. The SDS needs to be written in both official languages of Canada (English and French). The SDS may be provided as one bilingual SDS, or as two SDSs (one each in English and French). 

Important Questions to Answer when Reading a Safety Data Sheet

When you read through a Safety Data Sheet there are certain questions you should ask to ensure you have a thorough understanding of the product. The information on the SDS may also prompt follow up in other areas of your health and safety program. 


•    Do I have the correct SDS for the product and for the country? 
•    Do I have the most up-to-date SDS for the product?
•    Does the SDS description match the product I have?

Potential Hazards

•    Can this material burn or explode?
•    Is this material unstable? If so, under what conditions?
•    Can this product react with other chemicals? If so, which ones?
•    How can this product harm my health?
•    What are the symptoms of exposure?
•    Do I need a discussion with my doctor on the health effects of the product?

Preventive Measures

•    Do I need engineering controls?
•    Are there any special handling precautions?
•    What PPE is recommended?
•    Do I need to be careful when mixing this material with any other chemicals?
•    Are there special storage conditions?

Emergency Measures

•    What do I do in a fire or explosion?
•    What are the first aid measures if I am exposed?
•    What do I do in a spill or leak?
•    Where is the emergency response equipment?

When is the SDS updated?

SDSs are required to be accurate at the time of sale. Suppliers should be continuously reviewing and updating their SDSs if changes to the products occur. They have a duty to communicate these changes to the customers of the product with an up-to-date SDS. Suppliers have 90 days to communicate to their customers these changes after they become aware of them. 

What change requires an SDS update?

A change in the chemical composition of the product can warrant an update to the SDS with more hazards. Recent health studies can change the hazardous level of a product. Transportation and OHS regulations constantly change and can warrant a change to the SDS. Adoption of updated GHS standards can prompt a change to classification. 

What are an employer’s responsibilities for SDSs?

Employers need to ensure SDSs are readily available to employees for hazardous chemicals in their workplace. Employees need to understand how they can access SDSs. This can be in many different forms: in a binder or on a computer with a back up in case of a power failure. Employers may want to designate a person to be responsible for obtaining and maintaining SDSs, or they can use a service like sdsBinders to do this for them. 

What to do with SDSs for products no longer in use?

If you have hazardous products that are no longer being used, you need to first arrange for safe disposal. Disposing of the product removes the hazard from worksite. SDSs can then be archived and removed from the active SDS binder. 

Do I need SDSs for consumer or WHMIS exempt products?

Products that are exempt from WHMIS regulation may still have hazardous properties and your workplace chemical safety program should have an SDS for products that workers could be potentially exposed to. Examples of these products include consumer sized cleaning products like a toilet bowl cleaner or Windex; WD-40 or Brake Cleaner; pesticides and herbicides; office products like dry-erase markers; and explosives. Workers need to be trained on the hazards of each product they are using including the safe use, storage and disposal of that product.

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