Written by Steve Hudgik
RTECS numbers from National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) may reveal health information not shown on NFPA diamonds or MSD sheets
The chemical identification systems acknowledged by OSHA for workplace compliance are known as RTK color bars and NFPA diamonds. NFPA diamonds identify workplace chemicals, rate their flammability, stability, health risk and specify the PPE required for handling.
In addition to the chemical name, NFPA diamonds include a CAS number. CAS numbers are assigned to chemicals by the Chemical Abstract Service and are helpful in cataloging and accessing data since chemical nomenclatures will often include complicated pharmaceutical definitions, trade names or synonyms.
NIOSH developed an additional database for chemical health hazards called the Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances, or RTECS. For each chemical name and CAS number, NIOSH assigned a corresponding RTECS number. Although RTECS numbers are not required on NFPA labeling, the RTECS database provides valuable information regarding symptoms and health effects from exposure to specific chemicals.
NIOSH and OSHA were formed by the U.S. Congress as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. OSHA falls under the U.S. Department of Labor and is tasked with developing and enforcing health and safety regulations for the workplace.
NIOSH falls under the management of the Centers for Disease Control which is a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services. Since the NIOSH mission was defined at the outset as a health organization that conducts research, collects data and disseminates information, Congress mandated NIOSH to begin collecting toxicological data which became the RTECS database.
The RTECS database has been built from open-source scientific reports on toxicity levels and health hazards for certain chemicals. RTECS catalogs this data into six different types of toxicity.
RTECS data provides great detail on chemical toxicity including impact on respiratory, skin, organs and nerves both short-term and long-term. Because the RTECS database is compiled from open scientific findings, information is included from laboratory test results, university studies and other sources. Bibliographic resources are provided so the source studies can be accessed and validated.
MSDS, or Material Safety Data Sheets are detailed descriptions identifying the properties and effects of a particular chemical including, toxicity, reactivity, storage, health hazards and required PPE. In most cases, MSDS are compiled and provided by the chemical manufacturer or a sub-contractor. A MSD sheet is required to be posted and available for every chemical present in a workplace.
NIOSH RTECS data can provide an additional level of information since it is compiled from a wide range of research resources. It is not required that employers have a copy of the NOISH RTECS on site, but the information can be of great value for safety managers and health officers who prefer to have as much access to information regarding worker health and safety as they can.
A good start would be to obtain a copy of the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It includes chemical names, synonyms, trade names, CAS numbers, RTECS numbers, exposure symptoms, PPE requirements and more.
The entire RTECS database is available for subscription through the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
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