Merchant ships carry various types of cargo from one point to another. Sometimes, this cargo may be hazardous, such as oil, hazardous chemicals, hazardous gasses etc., being transported for industrial purposes. Hazardous chemicals can also be onboard a ship for maintenance reasons. However, all such instances must be under heavy scrutiny. When a hazardous substance is onboard, it can pose a risk to the immediate environment, including the safety of the mariners as well as the marine environment. 

An MSDS or material safety data sheet for ships is a supporting document required for the shipment of hazardous material. This document contains a detailed account of the contents of the shipments. There will be a technical breakdown of the substances and components on board. This document helps prove that hazardous substances do not fall under the dangerous good (DG) category.

Do All Shipments Require MSDS?

Not all shipments require an MSDS. MSDS in shipping is required only to show as proof that the shipment is not a material classified as dangerous goods. Shipping companies must stay vigilant regarding the shipment they take onboard and ensure compliance with international shipping laws. There is no set rule regarding the need for an MSDS, and every country has different requirements. If you are carrying authorised dangerous goods, the shipping company has to ensure they are properly packed and all the transportation guidelines are adhered to.

What are the Commodities that Require MSDS?

Not all items require an MSDS. The most common items that do require an MSDS for shipping fall into the following three categories. Flammable items are, by default, required to have an MSDS to be transported as generic cargo.


Shipping liquids of any form requires you to have an MSDS. There has to be a detailed breakdown of the chemical composition of the liquid being shipped. There are instances where a company has to transport substances like paint, non-alcoholic hand sanitiser etc. In such cases, the chemical and physical properties like boiling point, flammability etc., have to be mentioned. Flammable liquids are almost always rejected. If the liquid is safe enough to be carried owing to its properties, it can be transported with an MSDS.


Electronic commodities have restrictions when it comes to shipping. This is because it usually comes with batteries, which can be shipped only under the correct circumstances. Before an electronic item can be shipped, the battery must be removed, which can lead to sparks and ensuing fire. An MSDS is always required for such items.


If the shipment consists of powders, it can also have restrictions imposed on it. This is because chemical powders risk being reactive when exposed to different conditions. The stability of the powder and its physical and chemical properties have to be detailed in the MSDS. It must also be packed in the most secure way possible to avoid spillage.
These are the three most common categories that would require MSDSs. However, as a general guideline, any item that might pose a fire hazard should have an MSDS to warrant its eligibility to be transported as generic cargo.

Items on board a Ship that is Hazardous

The goods on board a ship may be the shipment being transported or those that are used for different purposes on the ship. In each of these cases, an MSDS is necessary. They are:

  • Flammable liquids and oils: Different types of oils and fuels are used on a ship. Lube oils used for machinery, PLG and LNG for cooking naturally pose a risk.
  • Cargo on the ship under the IMDG code or the International Maritime Dangerous Goods code is hazardous. The code ensures that they are transported within the packaging, preventing pollution and enhancing safety.
  • Ships carry fuel oil and lube oil in the bunker. This is hazardous to the ship as well as the people on it.
  • There are other chemicals on board a ship used for maintenance purposes. They may be hazardous and thus require an MSDS. They could be chemicals used for sanitation systems, cleaning agents, water treatments, dozing fuels etc.

Purpose of MSDS

The major purpose of an MSDS is to ensure the safety of the mariners and the marine environment. It is a document that provides information on hazardous substances onboard a ship that can cause a potential incident. These may be substances that are carried for operational purposes or as cargo. Every hazardous material on board requires an MSDS. There should also be specialised personal protective equipment or PPE for the mariners to use in the case of an emergency. There must be appropriate procedures to get the fastest response in case of an incident.

Content of MSDS

Let us now look at the contents of an MSDS as a ship which gives information on the substances being shipped and what to do in an emergency.

  • The content or mixture of substances is identified with the hazard it can cause.
  • The chemical composition of the substance and information of the ingredients.
  • Details on how to firefight in case a fire breaks out.
  • What should first aid measures be taken in case of an injury from the substance?
  • What has to be done to contain it or minimize damage in case of accidental release of the substance
  • What are the following criteria for handling the substance and storing it?
  • How to protect yourselves from it and how to control exposure to the substance
  • Details on the chemical and physical properties of the mixture
  • Information about the toxicity of the material.
  • Transport and regulatory information.
  • The ecological impact it can have, and information on the disposal of the substance
  • Additional information on the preparation and revision of MSDS.

Legislative Requirements

In accordance with the SOLAS regulation 5-1, which complies with the ISM code, merchant ships must have MSDS onboard if they are transporting MARPOL Annex I cargo or bunker.

Summing It Up

An MSDS is a critical document on a ship. It provides the means to prevent incidents on a ship, guidelines to respond to them and a means of accounting for the hazardous goods aboard a ship. Ships must carry an MSDS to make the entire shipping process as safe as possible.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is an MSDS required for shipping?

An MSDS is not required for shipping all the time. If the item being shipped falls into a hazardous goods category or dangerous goods category, then an MSDS is required. It is required to adhere to international shipping laws.

What is the material safety data sheet for shipping?

Material Safety Data Sheet or MSDS is a document that is required to ship hazardous material. It contains all the necessary information on the materials. It will contain a technical breakdown of the nature and form of the substance, the hazard it poses, the action needed to be taken in case of an incident etc.

What are the five items that an MSDS sheet must include?

While there is no limitation of the contents to just five items, we can list the following as some of the most critical information we need while transporting a hazardous substance. The content or mixture of substances, the chemical composition, fire fighting measures, first aid measures and containment measures.

Where do I get the Material Safety Data Sheet?

Normally, the manufacturer or the shipper of the substance should produce the MSDS as they have all the relevant information on the substance. The shipping company can also author it.