Read and Heed Product Labels

By Judy Kerry
State Compensation Insurance Fund

Warning labels, found on all containers of hazardous materials, provide much of the information handlers need to know to use the material safely. While you can get the same information (and more) from a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), only a warning label can tell you exactly which chemical is inside a that particular container.

Labels are important because they are the first alert that there may be hazards associated with using the material found in the container. Understanding warning labels will help you handle and use the material properly and avoid potential health effects.

Making sure that hazardous materials are labeled is a responsibility that all employees must share. If you find a container with no label or a torn or unreadable label, tell your supervisor immediately. The one piece of information you need to protect yourself may be what’s missing. Do not use or handle the material until you know for sure what it is.

The most important information on the label is a single word indicating how hazardous the material is. There are three levels of hazard wording. They are Danger, Warning, and Caution.

Danger means it is the most hazardous kind of material.
Warning is less hazardous than Danger, but more hazardous than Caution.
Caution is the least hazardous rating. But even materials labeled Caution can be harmful to your health if you don't follow proper procedures.

The label also contains information about its physical hazards, like if the material is flammable, explosive or corrosive. Health hazard information on the label will list such dangers that could be caused by inhalation, irritation to the eyes, burns to the skin or other ill health effects.

Warning labels may also tell you how to properly store and dispose of the material. The label may indicate precautions to take, such as how to clean up, what personal protective equipment to use, and how to handle a spill of the material. First aid instructions may include antidotes for poisons and what steps to take when someone is exposed to the material.

When health and safety is at stake, it pays to double check. Always read the label before you begin a job requiring a potentially hazardous substance. Although you may have used the same substance many times, the manufacturer may have changed the formula or the concentration. Avoid identifying materials by the label’s color or design. If the label raises any questions in your mind about the material, read the MSDS, or discuss it with your supervisor.

All secondary containers must be labeled unless it is intended only for the immediate use of the employee who performed the transfer from the original container. This requires that the secondary container stay within the control of that employee and is used within the work shift. The minimum information required is the identity of the hazardous material and appropriate hazard warnings.