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Safety First and Last: Get ready for GHS

I’m sure that most of us who have been in the workplace for some time have been trained in the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), a system that has been alive and well in Canada since 1988.


August 27, 2015
By Jeff Thorne

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This type of training represents our right to know about potential chemical and biological hazards that we may be exposed to, and how to use the system in order to ensure workers are protected.

As of February 2015, Health Canada has aligned WHMIS with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). The new system changes the classification criteria; it ultimately improves the end user’s ability to identify the severity of the hazards through the use of improved labels, symbols (called pictograms) and Safety Data Sheets (SDS).

There are two main elements of GHS. The first element is the classification of hazards according to GHS rules that allow for greater consistency and the second element is the communication of hazards using a standardized 16-section SDS and labels.

Previously under WHMIS 1988, there were six main classes (A-F) and eight symbols.  Under the new system there are three major hazard groups: Physical, Health and Environmental. This is one of the most notable changes.

Within each major hazard group there are hazard classes and categories. Classes are a way of grouping together products that have similar properties. The Physical hazard group contains 19 classes that have physical or chemical properties that can be flammable, oxidizing, reactive or corrosive.

The Health hazard group contains 12 classes that are broken down into the products’ ability to cause health effects that may result in eye, skin or respiratory sensitization, reproductive effects or cancer.

The Environmental hazard group contains two classes. This hazard group has not been adopted in WHMIS 2015.

Most of the classes have categories that indicate how severe the hazard is through the use of letters and numbers. For example, Category 1 indicates the highest severity. Category 1 may also be further divided into 1A and 1B. Category 1 is more severe than Category 2, which is more severe than 3, and so on.

So what does this mean for employers in Canada? Regardless of the changes, anyone who works with, or is likely to be exposed to a biological or chemical agent must be trained to understand the hazards and protective measures implemented when working with hazardous products. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that the training provided incorporates key areas specific to the handling, usage, storage, transport and disposal of hazardous chemicals. Additionally, workers may need to be trained in emergency and/or spills-response procedures. As always, employers will still have to review their WHMIS program at least annually and take into account any changes that may prompt retraining (for instance, new product, different hazards or new information).

Implementation of the new system will take place between now and 2018. From now until May 31, 2017, suppliers can choose to use WHMIS 1988 or WHMIS 2015 to classify and communicate the hazards of their products. As a result, employers will have the responsibility to educate and train workers about WHMIS 2015 as new pictograms, labels, or SDS appear in the workplace.

During this transition employers may have to deliver training on both WHMIS 1988 and WHMIS 2015 if both systems are being used.

WHMIS training can be a challenge as in many cases it is over-simplified and lacks the details required to provide workers the proper knowledge, skills and attitudes to work safely with hazardous products. Workers and supervisors should be aware of the hazards through the use of pictograms under both systems, understand how to protect themselves and know where to get more information.


Jeff Thorne is manager of training and consulting at Occupational Safety Group


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