Resource Library

OSHA: Employee Right to Know and Safety Data Sheets

Date: April 2020

Does your organization have safety data sheets (SDS) for chemicals in the workplace, such as gasoline, cleaning solvents or propane? Do employees know where to find the safety data sheets? If an employee is accidentally exposed to a chemical, are the SDS organized so specific information can be accessed quickly? Are employees, including seasonal and part-time staff, trained annually about specific hazards and chemicals? Your responses to these questions are indicators of the organization’s compliance with the Minnesota OSHA (MNOSHA) Employee Right to Know (ERTK) standard.

Safety data sheets, formerly material safety data sheets, are resources created by chemical manufacturers, distributors or importers that detail information about the physical, health or environmental hazards of a chemical, as well as protective measures, safety precautions, first-aid procedures, storage and spill clean-up procedures and other critical information.

Since 1983, Minnesota employers have been required by MNOSHA formally to provide information and training about hazardous substances, harmful physical agents and infectious agents to which employees are routinely exposed. This is done through a formal, written Employee Right to Know training and labeling program (MN Rules Chapter 5206).

Modifications to the hazard communication elements of ERTK have been made with the introduction of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) adopted by OSHA in 2012. These changes made chemical classification, SDS format and labeling more uniform.

OSHA can cite an organization even when an ERTK program exists, but the program or training has deficiencies, lacks proper records, insufficient training sessions, inaccessible safety data sheets or inadequate container labeling. If your organization does not have a formal ERTK program or is not adequately maintaining the program, you are not alone. During the past several years, ERTK has been among OSHA’s most frequently cited general industry standard for all industries throughout the state.

A written ERTK program must include:

  • an inventory of hazardous substances and/or agents in the workplace.
  • identification of employees who are routinely exposed to those substances or agents.
  • a system for obtaining and maintaining information about substances and agents to which employees may be exposed. This is typically done with the use of SDS (see more below).
  • methods for making ERTK information, including safety data sheets, readily accessible to employees and other employers (such as contractors) in their work area.
  • a plan for providing initial, pre-assignment and annual training of employees by and at the cost of the employer.
  • implementation and maintenance of a labeling system or other warning methods.

Safety Data Sheets

Key to the ERTK program is safety data sheets. All chemical manufacturers are required to determine the hazard classifications of each product and communicate this hazard information and associated protective measures through the use of safety data sheets. In turn, all distributors of chemical products are required to make SDS and associated labels accessible to their customers.

A safety data sheet for each chemical product in use in the workplace should then be kept in hard copy form in a notebook or maintained electronically and made easily accessible to employees. Each SDS must then be retained for 30 years, even if substances are no longer in use.

With the enactment of the GHS, each safety data sheet is composed of 16 categories that detail information regarding products containing hazardous chemicals. In addition to the common name(s) of the product, information on the SDS includes the physical and chemical characteristics of the hazardous chemical, known acute and chronic health effects and related health information, exposure limits, precautionary measures, emergency and first-aid actions, clean up procedures, and the entity responsible for preparing the safety data sheet.

Missing or outdated SDS can often be replaced by obtaining them directly from the chemical supplier or from the chemical manufacture. The following Internet site also has a large collection of SDS online resources:

For additional information regarding Employee Right to Know, safety data sheets or any other required OSHA programs, members should contact their MCIT loss control consultant toll-free at 1.866.547.6516.

Note: Whenever a new chemical is used by an organization, employers must remember to train staff. Likewise, the staff needs to be advised when SDS are replaced with updated information.

Employee Right to Know Standard: Why You Should Care Case Study

Why is a written Employee Right to Know program and access to safety data sheets required by OSHA? Consider this example of an actual workplace accident.

In August 2006, a two-person crew working for an ornamental iron working company was assigned a repair project 40 miles from the office in a remote area of Colorado. A spiral staircase in the back patio area needed to be repainted.

The prep work involved the use of solvents, rust-removing chemicals and abrasive tools. During a break, the victim went back to the truck to get a drink. Picking up a sports-drink bottle located near a cooler that contained their lunches, he took a drink. He immediately knew something was not right and spit out about half the contents, swallowing the remainder. He told his co-worker he thought he had drunk mineral spirits.

Cell phone service was difficult to find, but eventually the victim’s co-worker contacted the office and was instructed to return and report to the hospital in the shop’s town. It was several hours before the exact identity of what the victim swallowed was known and about five hours before a safety data sheet was provided to the treating physician. The victim died two days later. The solution in the bottle was not mineral spirits, but a very toxic and strong acid.

It was common practice for employees of this company to re-use household containers for work materials; however, this six-week employee of the company was unaware of this practice. It did not help that the original sports drink label was still on the bottle and the acid solution was light blue, much like a sports drink.

Timely access to the information on a safety data sheet could have led to a quicker response and prevented the death. Right to know training along with a proper container and appropriate labeling would have likely prevented this accident.

The information contained in this document is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or coverage advice on any specific matter.