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What went Hong: Know your codes

Understanding regulations outlined by NFPA and WHMIS could help prevent catastrophe on the jobsite.


April 4, 2022
By James Hong

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There are two essential codes covering both hazardous material codes and fire protection standards and regulations: NFPA and WHMIS. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a non-profit organization devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards. The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) is a system that provides information for the safe use of hazardous materials used in Canadian workplaces.

You can access the 747-page 2021 NFPA 1 Fire Code documentation at nfpa.org. The National Fire Code of Canada 2015, published by the National Research Council of Canada, can be accessed at nrc.canada.ca. Once you navigate to the webpage, there is a robust search engine for finding the codes you need. 

So why is it important to learn to access the fire codes? The short answer is that, in my experience, companies do not include how to access fire codes online in their training. They expect to hire job supervisors who already have that knowledge. The reality is many supervisors do not have this knowledge and may fail to install risk assessment-based preventive measures as a result.

The second set of codes – WHMIS – regulates information provided by means of product labels, material safety data sheets (MSDS) and worker education programs. WHMIS was created as a response to worker’s rights to understand what hazardous materials and chemicals are present in their workplace. The goal is to bring awareness to workers regarding the health ramifications of handling toxic materials and the safety measures for the prevention of injuries, illness and death. All three participating parties, government, industry and labour, developed the system to be in the best interest of everyone involved. WHMIS became law in 1988.

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When a product is considered a controlled product, suppliers must label and provide an MSDS for that product. Employers must implement WHMIS  education in their training, as well. It’s also mandatory to do a full audit of all hazardous materials on-site, and ensure the products are labelled and a data sheet is attached. Workers are required to take WHMIS training, follow the safety recommendations for those products and to advise if a product does not have a proper datasheet or readable label. This must all be repeated whenever a new toxic substance is brought onsite and when a new or additional job component requires risk assessment. 

I’ve found that one of the best sources for obtaining MSDS material safety data sheets, without having to subscribe, is published by Health Care B.C., which can be searched by product name, manufacturer or product code. The results will provide the full safety data details which can be printed and attached to the product. The SDS search engine can be found at sds.healthcarebc.ca/search. When the product is selected, the result defines whether it is WHMIS-exempt. You may also obtain the SDS safety data sheet from the manufacturer and several other SDS search engines. PubChem has a searchable data source that uses many multiple SDS sources to search for chemical information about products. 

Most of the time, it will only be necessary to use the product code input for the MSDS search. Please remember that if a product is controlled by the WHMIS system it must have a MSDS material safety data sheet, without exception. I’ve been on countless job sites and have never seen a MSDS on any product before I gave instruction to do so. Your health and jobsite risks, combined with the lack of required labelling and MSDS, can end in a very regrettable scenario.

Let’s keep our eyes open with a mind for self protection and worksite safety.   

Be safe. Be well.  


James Hong is an OHS consultant and writer for the construction industry.