Crack the Code: Master the Art of Reading and Understanding Safety Data Sheets (SDS)

Are you overwhelmed by all the information on a Safety Data Sheet (SDS)?

Do you find it difficult to interpret SDSs and use them to assess and mitigate hazards in your application?

If so, we’re here to help! We’ve authored thousands of Safety Data Sheets. We get it, reading and understanding SDSs can be overwhelming—that’s why we’ve written this article to help.  We cover everything you need to know to understand Safety Data Sheets, from their purpose to content, and everything in between.  

When you’re done reading, you’ll be ready to interpret the information on SDSs for products you use every day, assess hazards as they relate to your application, and reduce your risks. 

Why are Safety Data Sheets Important?

Safety Data Sheets or SDSs provide critical information about hazardous substances and chemicals. It’s important to read and understand SDSs for products you use. The ultimate purpose of an SDS is to provide information for the safe handling, storage, and disposal of hazardous substances.  

Understanding Safety Data Sheets helps you assess and minimize your risks so you can safely handle hazardous substances. 

When Should You Read the SDS for a Hazardous Product?

You should always familiarize yourself with the hazards of a product before using it. Make sure you know the hazards, understand how to store and safely handle the hazardous product—and what to do in an emergency. 

If you’re a Health and Safety Professional or a Buyer responsible for purchasing hazardous products, you should always review Safety Data Sheets before approving them for purchase or use on site. To help you assess hazardous products before approving them for use, check out the Health and Safety Professionals Guide to Reading Safety Data Sheets. 

What are the 16 Sections of a Safety Data Sheet (SDS)?

Each SDS has 16 sections. These include: 

  1. Identification
  2. Hazard Identification 
  3. Composition/Information on Ingredients 
  4. First-Aid Measures 
  5. Fire Fighting Measures 
  6. Accidental Release Measures 
  7. Handling and Storage 
  8. Exposure Controls/Personal Protection 
  9. Physical and Chemical Properties 
  10. Stability and Reactivity 
  11. Toxicological Information 
  12. Ecological Information 
  13. Disposal Considerations 
  14. Transport Information 
  15. Regulatory Information 
  16. Other Information 

Rather than focus on explaining the information contained in each section, this article focuses on helping you decode and apply the information to your application. For more detail on each SDS section, refer to the resource from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. 

SDS Interpretation: Tips for Decoding an SDS

Reading and understanding a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) may seem overwhelming at first. Given the large volume of information and many different audiences they’re designed for, they can sometimes be hard to understand. While employers, supervisors and workers need this information to understand the hazards to safely handle chemicals—SDSs also provide critical information to occupational hygienists, safety professionals, nurses, doctors, and emergency responders. 

So how do you decode SDSs for your application? 

Start with the section headings: The section headings provide a useful guide to the content of the Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Familiarize yourself with these headings to quickly locate the information you need. 

Understand the abbreviations and acronyms: Safety Data Sheets (SDS) often contain abbreviations and acronyms that can be confusing if you’re not familiar with them. Learn commonly used abbreviations and acronyms to make the process easier.


Look for the signal words: Safety Data Sheets (SDS) contain signal words that indicate the level of hazard associated with the substance. The two signal words used are “Danger” and “Warning.” “Danger” indicates a severe hazard, while “Warning” indicates a less severe hazard. 

Pay attention to the pictograms: Safety Data Sheets (SDS) also contain pictograms that provide visual representations of the hazard associated with the substance. By understanding the meaning of the pictograms, you can quickly identify potential risks associated with the substance. 

Read the entire Safety Data Sheet (SDS): While it may be tempting to skip sections that do not seem relevant, it is crucial to read the entire Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Each section provides critical information that may be necessary for your safety. 

Once you’ve fully reviewed the SDS, you need to apply the information to your application. Remember, the SDS represents the chemical product as supplied. If you dilute the product, depending on how much water or solvent you add, the hazards identified on the SDS may differ from your diluted solution. Whenever you have questions about SDSs or how to apply the information to your application, contact your chemical supplier. 

To safely handle the chemical, remember to do a hazard assessment for your specific operation and application. Often, you can take several actions to reduce your risk by adopting controls within your operation and ensuring employees are properly trained. In the absence of other hazard controls, personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last line of defense to protect yourself from exposure. 

The Risks Associated with Ignoring a Safety Data Sheet (SDS)

Safety Data Sheets (SDS) are a crucial tool for safe handling, storage, and disposal of hazardous substances and chemicals in the workplace. Ignoring the information provided in these documents can lead to serious consequences including an increase in accidents and injuries, environmental damage, legal consequences, damaged company reputation, and increased costs. 

Increased Risk of Accidents and Injuries: Without following the precautions and guidance outlined in an SDS, employees are more likely to face accidents and injuries. These can range from minor burns or irritation to more severe health implications such as poisoning, respiratory difficulties, or even life-threatening conditions in extreme cases. Understanding the properties of the substances you are dealing with, as explained in the SDS, is vital to avoiding such risks. 

Environmental Damage: Many hazardous substances can cause serious harm to the environment if not handled and disposed of. Ignoring an SDS can lead to spills, leaks, or improper disposal, leading to soil, water, and air pollution. These events harm the immediate surroundings, disrupt local ecosystems, and contribute to broader environmental issues such as climate change. 

Legal Consequences: Ignoring an SDS can result in significant legal penalties. Organizations must follow safety regulations and adherence to instructions within SDSs. Non-compliance can lead to hefty fines, lawsuits, and even closure of the business. Individuals can also face legal repercussions, such as charges of negligence or liability for harm caused. 

Damaged Reputation: Businesses that ignore SDSs risk long-term harm to their reputation. Accidents resulting from a lack of safety protocol adherence can result in negative media attention, loss of clients or partnerships, and a decrease in employee morale and trust. This can have large implications for a business’s future profitability and sustainability. 

Increased Costs: Ignoring an SDS can also lead to increased costs for a business. These costs can include medical bills for injured employees, cleanup costs for environmental contamination, increased insurance premiums, and lost productivity due to accidents or employee fear of unsafe conditions. 

Ignoring a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) isn’t a minor misstep—it’s a risk to people’s health, the environment, and the very existence of a business. The time taken to read and understand an SDS is an investment in maintaining a safe, responsible, and successful operation. The risks associated with ignoring this vital document far outweigh the effort it takes to understand its guidance. 

And if you are in doubt or need help to clarify the information on your SDS, reach out to your supplier or manufacturer. 


Reading and understanding a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) is critical to ensure your safety when handling hazardous substances. By understanding the purpose and content of a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) and following the essential tips we’ve provided, you can decode SDSs to keep yourself and others safe. Remember, take the time to read the entire Safety Data Sheet (SDS). 

While Safety Data Sheets (SDS) are meant to highlight all hazards and educate the user, some companies may withhold hazard information or follow deceptive practices to make their products appear safer than they are. While suppliers have a legal obligation to provide accurate information, the SDS police do not exist. Unfortunately, some companies put profits before safety. 

When in doubt, ask questions and seek clarification. If your supplier cannot help you, or is overly vague, it may be time to look for a new supplier. It is always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to handling hazardous substances. To help you analyze SDSs for accuracy, refer to The Health and Safety Professionals Guide for Reading Safety Data Sheets. 

By following these essential tips, you can apply the information from SDSs to your application to ensure you are handling hazardous substances safely and responsibly. 

Contact us if you have questions about our SDSs and need help to understand and manage the risks associated with our chemical products. 

And, if you can’t get the help you need from your current supplier, contact us to learn how we can help you Create a Better Future. A future where your chemical supplier is a partner who helps you understand the risks so you can safely handle the chemicals for your application. 

Table of Contents

You may be interested in…

Your Ultimate Guide to Choosing Industrial Degreasers

Heavy Equipment Cleaning and VOCs, Safety, and Performance Cleaning heavy equipment in industrial operations is a...

Legionella Risk Management: 4 Steps and 10 Essential Elements for Effective Water Management Plans

Do you know if you need a Water Management Plan to reduce your Legionella risk? Are...