February 18, 1999
The Honorable Ron Wyden
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator Wyden:
Thank you for your letter dated December 14, 1998, addressed to the
Honorable Alexis Herman, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor,
in which you requested clarification regarding systems of electronic
access to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). Your letter has been
forwarded to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
for a response. Below we have provided a brief history regarding the
issue of electronic access. Following this, we have provided answers
to your four questions.
OSHA has allowed electronic access to MSDSs since at least July, 1989.
Our most recent interpretation (written on October 13, 1998, to Mr. Mark
Hoffman, Rudolph/Libbe, Inc., Walbridge, Ohio) expanded the use of
telephone transmittal of hazard information in "emergency" situations.
The term "emergency," as it relates to back-up systems for electronic
access is discussed in our compliance directive, CPL 2-2.38D (Inspection
Procedures for the Hazard Communication Standard, dated March 20, 1998).
In this context, "emergency" is defined as foreseeable failures in the
electronic system such as power outages, equipment failures, on-line
access delays, etc., and is not meant to encompass catastrophic events,
medical emergencies, or other situations.
Previous to the October 13 letter to Mr. Hoffman, the only time telephone
transmittal of hazard information was permitted was under the mobile
worksite provision of the rule. The mobile worksite provision allows
employees who travel between worksites during the work shift to phone-in
for hazard information. In this situation, the employees have access to
the MSDSs prior to leaving the worksite and upon returning. The
telephone system, therefore, is seen as an emergency arrangement.
With that background, we have paraphrased your questions and provided
- If an employer maintains an electronic system as the
primary means of providing MSDSs in the workplace, is it acceptable for
employees to obtain hazard information verbally over the phone if the
primary system is temporarily inoperable? Is it acceptable for employees
to obtain hazard information over the phone in the case of other kinds of
In the event of a power outage, equipment failure, or other "emergency"
involving a foreseeable failure of the primary electronic system, OSHA
would consider telephone transmittal of hazard information to be an
adequate back-up as long as the MSDS is delivered to the site as soon
as possible. In emergencies other than failure of the primary electronic
system, the MSDSs must be available and we would consider telephone
transmittal of hazard information supplemental to the data sheets.
- Is it acceptable for an employer to rely on receiving verbal hazard
information over the phone and then receive the actual MSDS as soon
as possible, but no longer than two hours later?
No. Ready accessibility to MSDSs means that the employee may read and
refer to the information. OSHA interprets "readily accessible" to mean
immediate access to MSDSs. The employer has flexibility to determine
how this will be accomplished and may provide the data sheets via paper
copies, computer terminal access, or some other means of providing
readable copy on-site. The only situation in which it would be acceptable
to supply a readable copy of the MSDS two hours after the request is
made would be in situations where the primary system has failed and
two hours describes the shortest time frame possible for delivering
- Is an auxiliary power system acceptable to ensure that an MSDS is
retrievable in case of a general power failure?
Yes. An auxiliary power system would be acceptable to ensure that
MSDSs are retrievable in the situation of a general power failure.
- What is the employer's responsibility to provide an MSDS in the
event of a catastrophe such as an earthquake or fire?
The Hazard Communication Standard applies to any chemical which is known
to be present in the workplace in such a manner that employees may be
exposed under normal conditions of use or in a foreseeable emergency.
A foreseeable emergency includes, but would not be limited to, equipment
failure, rupture of containers, or failure of control equipment which could
result in an uncontrolled release. This does not include fires or other
catastrophic events. Laws such as the Emergency Planning and Community
Right-to-Know Act provide an infrastructure at the state and local levels
to plan for chemical emergencies and catastrophic events. The employer's
obligation is to ensure that MSDSs are readily accessible during each
work shift to employees when they are in their work areas.
If we may provide further information or assistance, please do not
hesitate to contact OSHA's Office of Health Compliance Assistance on
Charles N. Jeffress