Designing safety data sheets

Last year at work we decided to start publishing our own Safety Data Sheets. I wanted to share some of the issues I came across. 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) states technical information about the risks a product has to the safety of people, or the environment.

An 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
  • 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 explicit hierarchy.

Unfortunately the formatting of many Safety Data Sheets is anything but clear. Most are produced in Word using the (default) single column with tiny margins and huge type.

They also tendency to be long documents frequently pushing 10 pages even for simple products.

Example SDS Too Long

I reasoned early on that this grid solution was 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
  • Wear safety goggles

Overall the document is much more like a series of lists.

The wide measure of a single column grid is not suitable. Columns would allow the content to be grouped more easily. And it could take up less vertical space.

Setting up a grid and type setting

I 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. I found a 12 column grid based on the Golden Ratio.

I did a quick test by stripping the content from an existing SDS and pasting it into 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.

SDS 3 and 4 column comparison

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 frequently long. For example:

Section 1 Identification of the substance/mixture and of the company/undertaking

and subheadings just as elaborate:

Relevant identified uses of the substance or mixture and uses advised against

Details of the supplier of the Safety Data Sheet

A solution would have been to re-write these to something more concise. But this is not possible as to be compliant with legislation the headings are mandatory.

As you can see, the headings read more like sentences and just dominate. They take up several lines and in some cases use more space than the actual content.

Too large headings

There was only ever one route to go; reduce the font size of the headings.

But this makes 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 important. 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. The number also forms part of the heading and is mandatory. Section headings rather bizarely must contain the word section too.

Most Safety Data Sheets set these numbers inline. I decided to use hanging numbers to add some dynamism to the rather rudimentary grid. I thought of them as way finders and changed their colour so they would stand out more.

This did not work entirely as there was very little gutter space to work with.

Typography for technical content

Something I enjoyed was learning how to typeset units. Many Safety Data Sheets get these wrong:

  • 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. Using genuine subscripts and not faux ones make an enormous difference to legibility.
  • Using an en dash between number ranges instead of the hyphen.

— Alexander Blackman