Alexander Blackman

Safety Data Sheets

Last year at work we decided to start publishing our own Safety Data Sheets. I was tasked with the project and I wanted to share some of the issues I came across, as I found there is a real lack of resource about how you create these documents.

What is a Safety Data Sheet?

A Safety Data Sheet (SDS) is a document that states key details about the risks a product has to the safety of people, or the environment.

A SDS includes diverse information such as what protective clothing should be warn (for example gloves or goggles), what type of fire extinguisher to use, what the boiling point is, and what to do if you happen to swallow the product.

It is part of wider EU legislation known as the the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals (REACH). The SDS is a highly semantic document, with an explicitly defined hierarchy.

Unfortunately the formatting of Safety Data Sheets is typically anything but clear or concise. Many are clearly produced in Word using the (default) single column, manuscript grid, with tiny margins and huge type. They also have a tendency to be long documents, frequently pushing 10 pages even for simple products.

Diagram of entire SDS laid out as a grid

I reasoned early on that this grid solution was really at odds with the text; Safety Data Sheets are not novels and there are barely any paragraphs.

Most of the content consists of short, sharp statements; “R10 Highly Flammable”; “Do not ingest”; or “Wear safety goggles”. And overall the document read more like a series of lists.

The wide measure of the single column grid was not suitable. I knew having multiple columns would allow the content to be more easily grouped together, and would take up less vertical space.

Setting up a grid and type setting

I very quickly set myself two goals for the design:

  1. Make the content more readable
  2. Use as few pages as possible

I was not sure about how to define the grid itself. Rather than worry too much, I looked for an existing InDesign template and found a 12 column grid based on the Golden Ratio.

I did a quick test by stripping the content from an existing SDS, pasting into a word document, cleaning it up a bit and then put it in place in the template. I tried both a three column and a four column grid to see what would work better. I settled on the four columns as it seemed to have the right amount of density.

Screenshot of SDS mock up with three columns and four columns

From here I began to apply our company branding, setting the body text in Calibri and headings in Arial. I also started to run into more problems…

The long and short of it

Headings were a problem as they are frequently long. For example, “Section 1 Identification of the substance/mixture and of the company/undertaking”, and even subheadings are just as elaborate:

  1. Product identifier
  2. Relevant identified uses of the substance or mixture and uses advised against
  3. Details of the supplier of the Safety Data Sheet
  4. Emergency telephone number

A simple solution would have been to re-write these, but this is not possible as to be compliant with legislation these headings are mandatory.

As you can see, these headings read more like sentences and the effect is a little comical. Headings just dominate, taking up several lines and in some cases even using more space than the actual content.

Screenshot of SDS with headings set too large.

There was only ever one route to go; reduce the font size of the headings. But the effect of this was to make distinguishing the heading hierarchy more difficult. The range of font sizes was only a few points. Even altering weight or using uppercase to add variety could only do so much.

I reasoned that interpreting the level of heading was not as important as being able to quickly tell the difference between between a heading and its content. After all the headings are formulaic but the following content is not.

Where to put the numbers

Another constraint of the SDS is that each heading is numbered, and that this number forms part of the heading. This also includes section headings that must contain the word section.

Most Safety Data Sheets just set these numbers inline. I decided to use hanging numbers which I felt added some much needed dynamism to the rather rudimentary, even columned grid. I thought of them as way finders and even changed their colour so they would stand out more.

This did not entirely work as there was very little gutter space to work with, and some the numbered sections were long as well.

Typography for technical content

Something I really enjoyed learning more about during the project was the how to correctly set things like units and other scientific and/or technical information. Many SDS documents either got these crucial details wrong or did not use appropriate type setting.

  • Units have no plural. You cannot add an s to mm to indicate millimetres; mms means millimetre-seconds which is something else.
  • Values and their units must always have a space between them. The space actually represents a multiplication sign. For example it is 50 °C and not 50°C, 10 mm not 10mm and 50 % not 50%. A normal word space can often feel too large a gap which probably explains why most do not set with a gap at all.
  • Abbreviations for chemicals use subscripts. For example Carbon Dioxide it is CO₂ and not CO2. Also using genuine subscripts and not faux ones make an enormous difference to legibility.
  • Using an en dash between number ranges instead of the hyphen.

Useful resources for creating Safety Data Sheets

There is an underwhelming lack of information about tackling the visual issues of Safety Data Sheets, such as layout and typography, but thankfully there is some good information about its content and how to write one. Below are some of the more useful resources I have come across so far.


Section Two

Note that Safety-phrases, Risk-phrases and European Hazard Symbols are being phased out and replaced by Precautionary-statements, Hazard-statement, GHS Hazard Pictograms. I have included both as many SDS’s may still need both sets.

Section Three

Section Eight

Section 14

07 November 2015

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