TT Talk - Can you trust Safety Data Sheets?


Abuse of Safety Data Sheets for cargo bookings is uncomfortably frequent. A recent TT Club claim relating to a fire onboard a ship highlighted a number of issues.

Take utmost care with what is presented and be proactive in warning customers of their legal obligations – and potential penalties.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that abuse of Safety Data Sheets (SDS or formerly Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)) in relation to cargo bookings is a regular occurrence. As one senior shipping executive said, when he had been confronted with multiple false SDS, ‘It feels as if we are surrounded by criminals’.

Differing format standards globally, and the ease of creating apparently viable SDS, combine to make effective cargo screening difficult.

Mis-declaring cargo

In a recent TT Club claim, a cargo was booked, packed, declared and documented by the shipper as ‘Hookah burner (C. Tablets)’. During the sea carriage, the container caught fire and significant costs were incurred by the ship as a result.

The claim investigation established that the shipper had mis-declared the cargo, which was in fact activated carbon/charcoal. Photographs taken at the discharge port additionally showed that the shipper's brand labels had been affixed on top of the appropriate dangerous goods labels, hiding the true nature of the cargo to anyone performing a cursory inspection. Further enquiries with the shipper produced two different Safety Data Sheets. The first suggested that activated carbon was not considered to be dangerous goods. When this was challenged, a substitute correctly stated that this product was a Class 4.2 cargo, UN number 1362.

This incident highlights that those responsible for declaring cargo may do this incorrectly at any stage of the process. It may be at the time of shipment in order to pay less freight, or even during a claim investigation if the shipper is seeking to deflect responsibility and avoid potentially substantial liabilities.


“Differing government guidelines, and the ease of creating apparently viable safety data sheets, combine to make effective cargo screening difficult.”


Inconsistent Government Regulation

The carriers’ position is made more complex by the lack of consistency between the various governments about when SDS should be reviewed. As a result the given publication date of the document may be an ineffective screening process.

Canada requires that SDS are reviewed every three years, whether or not there is a need, while Australia currently stipulates every five years.

In Europe, regulation is based on the United Nations' Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), which the US is also adopting. The current EU Regulation entered into force in January 2009, replacing previous legislation, with a transition period until 2015.

The GHS itself requires review when ‘new and significant’ information becomes available, with the option that competent authorities specify a review frequency. In Europe, this relatively relaxed position is interpreted by the European Chemicals Agency as follows:

'It is recommended to review the totality of the contents of an SDS at regular intervals. The definition of these intervals is the responsibility of the actor who issues the SDS... It might be expected that the frequency of such reviews would be commensurate with the hazards of the substance or mixture.' [Source: European Chemicals Agency,].

Lack of GHS clarity

It would seem reasonable to conclude that the responsibility for reviewing SDS lies with the manufacturer. But there is no requirement to place an intended revision date on the SDS (Annex 4 of the GHS). It is understood that this is reflected in the majority of SDS – an original publication date and, occasionally, a revision date.

Approaching the interpretation of a 'regular interval' from a risk perspective, it might be assessed on the degree of danger presented in the materials. However, the seriousness of the danger might be hard to classify objectively. At a minimum, it would be reasonable to require that a review is undertaken after an incident has been reported, in order to confirm that the requirements of the SDS (fire, containment and treatment etc.) were correct and appropriate to the incident.

Despite the differing government positions regarding SDS, the legislation seems to point towards the GHS and – for the actual preparation of SDS – a consensus is forming around the European Chemical Agency's 'Guidance on the compilation of safety data sheets' .


 “Be constantly vigilant and question anything that seems strange or suspicious.”


Take action

The TT Club has written repeatedly about the risks of cargo being entered into the supply chain with improper declaration. The case study above shows that, not only does this happen, but also related documentation, such as SDS, may also be incorrect. The different regulatory requirements only seem to compound the situation.

Therefore, the advice to freight forwarders, consolidators, logistics operators and carriers is to be constantly vigilant and question anything which seems unknown, strange or suspicious. Be healthily sceptical and be prepared to challenge information and seek independent verification. Furthermore, communicate regularly with your customers to ensure they understand their obligations – and the penalties they may face for non-compliance.


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