Software keeps EPA workers informed about chemical risks

The Environmental Protection Agency is deploying chemical management software to keep employees informed about the risks associated with various hazardous materials.

EPA employees often come into contact with hazardous chemicals in the course of their work. For example, in the EPA's Region 5, employees oversee the Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. They interact with caustic compounds daily as they test water and soil samples.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards require that material safety data sheets (MSDS) be available to all employees who use chemicals. But aboard EPA Region 5's Lake Guardian, a research vessel, scientists do not have space for filing cabinets. And CD-ROMs quickly become outdated.

This is where chemical management software can save lives and time.

About a year and a half ago, EPA officials outfitted the Lake Guardian ship with satellite access to the Internet and installed MSDS Vault, an online database of regularly updated chemical information. Now, the boat can sail into the middle of Lake Michigan, collect vials of water and safely perform chemical analysis, said Marc Colvin, the EPA's safety, health and environmental manager for Region 5.

Back on solid ground, the Web-based MSDS Vault inventory allows chemists in the region's Chicago lab to save themselves from burns and poisoning.

"If someone is looking out for a pesticide, they may have to do an extraction with methylene chloride," Colvin said. The researcher wants to know, "Is it flammable? What do you do if you spill it? Can it be disposed of in the sink?"

At sea and on land, the software leaves researchers free to concentrate on their specimens in Petri dishes, instead of focusing on pieces of paper.

"If I'm looking for acetone, for example, I can click on 'a' in the search and it will be on the screen before I finish this sentence," Colvin said. "That's why I like it."

Russ McCann, president and co-founder of Actio, the company that created MSDS Vault, said an emergency worker was able to access information from the system to help save a man's eyesight after an accident at an auto dealership a couple of years ago.

Region 5 is the only EPA division using MSDS Vault, McCann said, adding that his employees have worked with other federal departments that are clearly in violation of OSHA's requirements.

"I would say a majority of [Defense] agencies are still using paper binders or CDs with unrevised MSDSs," he said.

Government occupational health officials could not confirm this observation, saying that neither OSHA nor any other federal body inspects agencies for MSDS compliance.

It's really up to EPA officials, said Kate Garay, health education specialist for Federal Occupational Health, a service unit within the Department of Health and Human Services' Program Support Center.

"They are supposed to be doing internal audits or hiring outside firms to do audits," she said.

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