Last updated: 11.07.23

Understanding Safety Data Sheets and COSHH

Understanding Safety Data Sheets and COSHH Assessments

Please Note: Safety data sheets are not, under any circumstances, meant to be a replacement for a thorough risk assessment. You should follow COSHH and safety data sheets in combination in order to conduct a thorough risk assessment to prevent any harm from coming to those within a workplace. COSHH is essential when working with harmful substances, and safety data sheets can help you make informed decisions about your COSHH policy.

Hazardous substances are more common in workplaces than you might think and can be a large risk to employees’ health in different industries. In fact, 1.8 million workers have suffered from a work-related illness in recent years, according to data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK, and a total of 36.8 million working days were lost as a result of work-related injuries and illness. 

The reality of operating in workplaces which deal with hazardous substances is that employees can be placed at greater risk of becoming ill if employers, and the employees themselves, do not effectively assess and control these hazards.

As a result, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, known as COSHH, provides a framework in the UK which ensures that people are safe when working with potentially dangerous substances. Safety data sheets for chemicals, which are often abbreviated simply to SDS, are another method in which businesses can ensure their employees are at lower risk of workplace incidents involving hazardous substances. 

The question is, what do these two safety measures have to do with one another? In this article, we outline what safety data sheets and COSHH are and how each plays an important role in protecting the health of employees across the country and how they are intertwined. 

What Are Safety Data Sheets?

Safety data sheets are an important form of documentation dealing with the safe supply, handling, storage and use of chemicals in the workplace, as well as the emergency measures that may need to be carried out in an accident. They were formerly referred to as Material Safety Data Sheets, or MSDS. Ultimately, they are designed to help people make the right decisions when it comes to assessing the risk of harmful substances, such as chemicals.

These data sheets are required by the UK REACH Regulation amongst all manufacturers and suppliers and must be offered free of charge to all those that are obtaining hazardous products. 

This applies to a number of chemical substances that are both manufactured within or imported to Great Britain, and these substances can either be on their own, within a mixture or can be part of an article/ object. These sheets are required by law and must be kept up to date in the case that a substance is dangerous to supply.

Safety data sheets are necessary for any workplace in which a chemical substance that is classified as hazardous, according to the COSHH legislation or other hazardous substance regulations, is used. This also applies if chemicals are not classed as hazardous but do contain small amounts of a hazardous substance. 

Why Are Safety Data Sheets Important?

Safety data sheets are critical as they contain the information that is required to show employers what they need in order to complete a risk assessment in their workplaces, which is a requirement in line with the COSHH legislation. 

These safety data sheets will describe what hazards may be present within a workplace, and therefore help employers in identifying these hazards and assessing how likely they are to produce a risk to employees.

What Information is on Safety Data Sheets?

Safety data sheets have information outlined by the manufacturers including details about the chemical, or chemicals, being obtained by workplaces. These details are as follows:

  • What the chemical, or chemicals, are, their composition, and ingredients details (which should specify their reactivity or stability also)
  • The properties of the chemical(s)
  • Identifying the health, physical, and environmental hazards that the chemicals may pose
  • Storage information as some substances will have expiry dates, which will need to be made clear. Some substances will also need to be stored at certain temperatures
  • Safety precautions necessary for handling, storing, transporting, and disposing of chemicals
  • Information regarding the ecological nature of the chemical, such as whether it degrades, its persistence, and also toxicity to environments 
  • Toxicological details, such as how the chemical can enter the body and pose a risk to health

Further information about dealing with chemicals and the safety measures and controls to take when doing so include:

  • Any exposure limits that need to be followed and monitored
  • Personal protection measures that need to be taken, such as wearing personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Measures taken in the instance that there is an accidental release of chemicals in an environment, such as clean up, disposal, and contamination
  • Fire-fighting measures to execute in the instance that there are fires or fumes caused by the chemicals and their reactions
  • First aid requirements, in order to understand the medical procedures and treatments that may be required in order to relieve any injuries caused by the chemical

These safety data sheets are generally supplied alongside the substance in question, often found on the packaging, such as on the back of the bottle. 

What is COSHH and Why Are Safety Data Sheets Important To It?

The COSHH legislation, as already mentioned, details how harmful substances must be controlled in the workplace to protect the health of employees. The process of implementing and following COSHH policy is much like any other health and safety process. 

The main steps of its regulations are as follows:

  • Identifying any hazards within a business, which will include any harmful substances such as chemicals, gases, vapours, bacteria, and more
  • Determining who is at risk from these substances and how risk may arise
  • Putting measures into place that mitigate risk, such as ensuring handling processes are correct, controlling access, and giving people the right training and protective equipment

COSHH legislation covers a number of specific hazards which must be mitigated or controlled within a workplace in order to protect employees’ health. 

For COSHH, safety data sheets are important as they provide the information required about chemical products in order for users to then take this information to make an informed risk assessment. Therefore, for COSHH, a safety data sheet is highly necessary and important to ensure that people’s well-being is maintained and the risks associated with hazardous chemicals are kept to a minimum. 

The Difference Between a COSHH Risk Assessment and Safety Data Sheet

You may be questioning what the difference is between chemical safety data sheets and a COSHH risk assessment, particularly as the two are so closely related. Whilst both are required and necessary in assessing the risks associated with hazardous substances, each plays its own role in the timeline of identifying the hazardous substance and mitigating the risks it may pose to individuals. 

Data safety sheets themselves hold the initial information that is supplied and required in order to better understand the hazardous substance that is being used. This was discussed in more detail above, describing how a safety data sheet often includes information on the chemical composition, name of the substance, and other factors.

These safety sheets are an important part of the COSHH but are distinct from them. The COSHH regulations describe the control procedures that need to be carried out in order to use the product safely and prevent it from posing any risks or causing any harm to employees in the workplace.

In order to carry out a COSHH risk assessment, individuals must utilise the information outlined in the safety data sheet. So, when combined, both the safety data sheet and COSHH procedures work harmoniously to prevent harm from coming to those dealing with hazardous substances.

Finding Out More About COSHH and Safety Data Sheets

It’s always worth being aware that, while safety data sheets are intended to give clear details about the potential risks of an item, knowledge is also required to make sure that workers are using any harmful substance safely. That’s why a good level of training is important to have a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of safety data sheets and hazards at work.

Senior members of staff, and those responsible for health and safety, should offer training on certain substances that have been identified to pose a risk within a workplace. Similarly, having a good overview of how COSHH works will be useful for many employees.

At Virtual College by Netex, we offer an online COSHH training course which is specifically designed to give employees essential information on this important aspect of workplace health and safety, as well as offer further insight into safety data sheets. 


Where Should Safety Data Sheets be Stored?

Safety data sheets need to be stored in a location where all staff are able to access them during working hours in a work area or environment. They can be stored either electronically or in paper form. 

Who Provides Safety Data Sheets?

According to REACH Regulations, suppliers are required by law to provide an updated safety data sheet alongside all hazardous substances and chemicals that they are supplying to businesses and organisations.

How Often Do Safety Data Sheets Need to be Updated?

Safety data sheets must be updated whenever it is necessary to do so, and this must be done by the manufacturer of the hazardous chemical or substance. Revising or updating safety data sheets has no specified time frame, but this is advised to be done at least once every 3 years in order to ensure any significant data or changes are made accordingly. 


Safety data sheets and COSHH both play a key role in minimising the risks posed by hazardous chemicals or substances in the workplace. Without them, we would expect more workers to suffer from ill health caused by chemicals across the world. 

We hope that this article has offered you the insight that you need to better understand safety data sheets as well as COSHH, and how both operate in conjunction to assess and minimise risks associated with hazardous substances. This is an important consideration, required by law, for all businesses dealing with hazardous substances, which need to have a suitable health and safety plan in place in line with COSHH regulations and safety data sheets. 

A basic understanding of both COSHH and safety data sheets is essential for safety procedures to be executed around hazardous substances in the workplace. Our aforementioned COSHH training package is our best course on offer to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of both COSHH and safety data sheets to protect workers’ health and wellbeing.