International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSC)

Description of Card Process

The ICSC project is an undertaking of the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS)external icon . The project is being developed in the context of the cooperation between the IPCS and the Commission of the European Communities.

The IPCS is a joint activity of three cooperating International Organizations: namely the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)external icon, the International Labor Office (ILO)external icon, and the World Health Organization (WHO)external icon. The main objective of the IPCS is to carry out and disseminate evaluations of the hazards posed by chemicals to human health and the environment.

What is an ICSC? Who is it intended for?

An ICSC summarizes essential health and safety information on chemicals for their use at the “shop floor” level by workers and employers in factories, agriculture, construction and other work places.

ICSC are not legally binding documents, but consist of a series of standard phrases, mainly summarizing health and safety information collected, verified and peer reviewed by internationally recognized experts, taking into account advice from manufacturers and Poison Control Centers.

Is an ICSC comprehensive?

A Card and the information that it contains are related to specific chemical substances and are basically concerned with the intrinsic hazards posed by that chemical. Downstream risks will vary according to how a substance is used. A Card cannot in practical terms address all problems that might occur in the multitude of possible work situations nor can it provide all the fine details needed when using a particular substance.

However, the Cards do offer a basic tool to supply the workers with information on the properties of the chemicals that they use. They can also be useful in the training of workers possibly undertaken by employers. Finally, the Cards might be the principal information source in less developed areas or in small and medium size enterprises, as regards both management and workers.

How are chemicals identified in an ICSC?

The identification of the chemicals on the Cards is based on the UN numbers, the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) number and the Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances (RTECS/NIOSH) numbers. It is thought that the use of those three systems assures the most unambiguous method of identifying the chemical substances concerned, referring as it does to numbering systems that consider transportation matters, chemistry and occupational health.

Are ICSC an instrument to classify chemicals?

The ICSC project is not intended to generate any sort of classification of chemicals. It makes reference to existing classifications. As an example, the Cards cite the results of the deliberations of the UN Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods with respect to transport: the UN hazard classification and the UN packaging group, when they exist, are entered on the Cards. Moreover, the ICSC are so-designed that room is reserved for the countries to enter information of national relevance.

Are ICSC authoritative?

The ICSC are prepared by various IPCS Participating Institutions (PIs) and go through several steps of consultation and editing: comments are requested from Industry and Poison Control Centres as outlined in the attached process flow-chart. Eventually the ICSC are peer reviewed by a group of international experts and the importance of this last step is paramount. It is believed that it represents a significant asset of the ICSC versus other packages of information prepared at national, local or professional levels. Manufacturers of chemicals and representatives of employees and workers’ associations are invited as observers to the peer-review meetings. The addition of national regulatory measures/standards can be made to the ICSC; the format contains free space to accommodate such information as well as other national viewpoints if required.

Magnitude of the task: Who prepares the cards?

The IPCS intends to generate approximately 2000 Cards in the next six years. Efficient support from IPCS PIs specialized in chemical safety and through international cooperation with European Union could lead to a production rate of about 350 Cards per annum, i.e. approximately 25 Cards per PI and per year with a group of 15 PIs.

ICSC and/or Material Safety Data Sheets

Great similarities exist between the various headings of the ICSC and the manufacturers’ Safety Data Sheet (SDS) or Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) of the International Council of Chemical Associations, as can be seen in the following table.

1. Chemical product identification,and
Company identification
1. Chemical identification
2. Composition/Information on
2. Composition/formula
3. Hazards identification 3. Hazard identification from fire
and explosion, and from
exposure by inhalation, skin,
eyes and ingestion, and
Prevention measures (with
personal protective equipment)
4. First-aid measures First-aid measures
5. Fire-fighting measures Fire-fighting measures
6. Accidental release measures 4. Spillage, disposal
7. Handling and storage 5. Storage
6. Packaging, labelling & transport
8. Exposure controls/Personal measures See 3. above
  7. Important data:
See 15. below Occupational exposure limits
9. Physical & chemical properties See 8. below
10. Stability & reactivity Physical & chemical dangers
11. Toxicological information Routes of exposure
Effects of short- and long-term
See 9. above 8. Physical properties
12. Ecological information 9. Environmental data
13. Disposal considerations See 4. above
14. Transport information See 6. above
15. Regulatory information See 7. above
  10. Notes
16. Other information 11. Additional information

However, MSDSs and the ICSC are not the same. The MSDS, in many instances, may be technically very complex and too extensive for shop floor use, and secondly it is a management document. The ICSC, on the other hand, set out peer-reviewed information about substances in a more concise and simple manner. While not a legal document, the ICSC is an authoritative document emanating from WHO/ILO/UNEP.

This is not to say that the ICSC should be a substitute for an MSDS nothing can replace management’s responsibility to communicate with workers on the exact chemicals, the nature of those chemicals used on the shop floor and the risk posed in any given work place.

Indeed, the ICSC and the MSDS can even be thought of as complementary. If the two methods for hazard communication can be combined, then the amount of knowledge available to the safety representative or shop floor workers will be more than doubled.

The ICSC could serve as a model for disseminating chemical safety information to workers.

Dissemination of the cards

The ICSC are available from the European Commissionexternal icon and the translated versions are being made available through national authorities (i.e. Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Health, and Health and Safety National Authorities). The posting of these cards on the Internet may alleviate the practical constraints implied by all the aspects of the distribution of the ICSC. More importantly, national authorities have the opportunity to add to the Cards brief explanations regarding the links between the contents of some Cards and the regulatory status of the chemical in that country, i.e, U.S. National Cards.

Page last reviewed: January 19, 2012