Historic Moments in Workplace Safety: Origins of the MSDS


The lost workday rate among the slaves who built the great pyramids of Egypt must have been staggering. Unfortunately, the ancient Egyptians didn’t keep detailed injury records. But while workers’ comp and OHS laws were millennia away, the Egyptians did in fact prove to be pioneers in chemical safety.

The Invention of the MSDS

The MSDS became a legal requirement in the 20th century. But Kansas State University Professor Samuel Kaplan says the concept dates back at least to the Egyptians. Archaeologists have unearthed writings describing the dangerous properties and proper uses of chemicals on the walls of tombs and in papyrus records more than 4,000 years old.

Centuries later, the Sumerians created crude forms of MSDSs for the dyes they used. Greek and Roman scientists and physicians kept records cataloging the properties of the chemicals they worked with. Galen codified this knowledge in his works on human anatomy. Similar writings were created by members of Islamic, Indian, Chinese and other non-western societies.

The data contained in the modern MSDS (and methods of recording them) continued to develop over the centuries. But when did the MSDS document actually come into use?

According to Kaplan, by the middle of the 19th century, chemical and drug manufacturers began supplying their customers forms of data sheets describing the precautions and methods of handling their products. While researching NIOSH archives, Kaplan came across what he believes to be the earliest example of an MSDS—a 1906 writing by a firm called Valentine and Company. In 1946, the Manufacturers Chemical Association (the current CMA) began publishing “Chemical Safety Data Sheets.”

Regulators & the Modern MSDS

Inevitably, governments started getting involved. Right after World War II, the U.S. Department of Labor published a series of profiles of dangerous chemicals for workers. The series was entitled “Controlling Chemical Hazards” and the first installment was about ammonia. In 1958, the U.S. Congress mandated chemical disclosure for dock workers under the Longshoremans & Harbor Workers Act.

The modern MSDS was developed in the 1960s by an industrial hygienist working for the DOL’s Industrial Safety and Occupational Health Support Office. The first official form—Form No. LSB-OOS-4—was added to the maritime safety regulations in 1968.

When workplace health and safety regulations were extended to all workers as part of the new OSHA law in 1970, Form No. LSB-OOS-4 became Form OSHA-20. In 1983, OSHA issued regulations mandating that manufacturers use an MSDS for all shipments of hazardous chemicals leaving their workplace. The requirement was expanded to cover all employers in 1987.

Of course, the MSDS is also a central component of the Canadian WHMIS regime. Although similar in nature, Canadian MSDS requirements are stricter than parallel U.S. OSHA standards in terms of both the amount of information an MSDS must contain and how it must be displayed.


Of course, the MSDS isn’t a uniquely North American institution. Parallel versions of the MSDS are now required by almost all of the world’s industrialized countries and efforts are being made to globalize standards and create a universal MSDS form that will work in all countries. Canada is a participant in the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). If you want to read how GHS standards stack up against WHMIS, check out the Insider website, http://www.safetycomplianceinsider.com/insider-top-stories/whmis-the-globally-harmonized-system-and-what-it-means-to-you