Everyone who works with chemicals in the workplace should be familiar with the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS). WHMIS is Canada's national hazard communication standard and its key elements are labels on containers of controlled products, material safety data sheets (MSDSs), and education and training.
WHMIS is a national system managed by Health Canada and regulated under the Hazardous Products Act. All of the provinces and territories also have established WHMIS employer requirements within their jurisdictions. These requirements obligate employers to ensure that all controlled products in the workplaces are properly labelled. The controlled products must also be used, stored, handled or disposed of safely in the workplaces. MSDSs must be made available to workers and workers need to be trained on how to use, store, handle and dispose of the products in their workplaces.
But WHMIS is headed for an overhaul in 2008 when Canada adopts a new United Nations' recommended system called the Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, or GHS for short. As its name suggests, the GHS is intended to provide consistency worldwide. In other words, a chemical classified as hazardous in one country would be classified the same in all other countries using the GHS system. Right now, countries with no classification system can see a number of different labels and safety sheets, or no warnings at all. And currently, there is no consistency between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.
When the GHS is implemented, employers will have to ensure all of the chemicals in their workplaces meet the requirements, including new hazard communication labels and MSDSs, which will have a 16-heading format and will be called safety data sheets.
The 2008 implementation goal is ambitious and the GHS has already been delayed from a 2000 deadline. However, Canada was a leader in developing the GHS so its implementation is expected eventually. Employers, therefore, would be wise to plan for extra training and other costs to introduce the GHS to their workplaces.