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Decoding WHMIS: Your Guide to Hazard Symbols and Meanings

Written by: Lisa Hallsworth

Published on: 27 July 2023

Vials labelled with WHMIS symbols

Welcome to our comprehensive guide to WHMIS symbols and their meanings! In any workplace setting, safety is your top priority. Whether you work for a municipality, or in a school, laboratory, office or manufacturing plant, it's essential to understand workplace hazards to keep yourself and your coworkers safe. Effective hazard communication is one of the key aspects of ensuring a safe working environment. That's where WHMIS symbols come into play.

WHMIS, which stands for Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, is Canada's standardized system to label and communicate information about hazardous materials. It is based on the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, known as UN GHS or simply GHS. The GHS has been adopted in 72 countries around the world.

An important aspect of WHMIS are the black pictograms within the distinctive red diamonds. These symbols serve as visual representations of the potential hazards associated with certain substances. They help workers quickly see that there may be risks involved with handling the products. However, understanding all the risks can be a daunting task.

That's why we've created this guide to help you quickly understand the meanings behind these safety symbols and empower you to promote a safer and more informed workplace. So, let's dive in and review WHMIS symbols together!

Why is it important to understand WHMIS symbols in the workplace?

Understanding WHMIS symbols is crucial to maintain a safe working environment.

There are many potentially hazardous substances that are commonly found in the workplace. These substances can include chemical ingredients in cleaning agents, solvents, gases and more. Chemical products are in use in all workplaces, including schools, municipal facilities, manufacturing plants, dentist offices, laboratories, and healthcare and hospitality facilities. In fact, SDS RiskAssist data shows that the average workplace uses 70 hazardous chemical products!

It's also important to note that in Canada, occupational health and safety legislation requires employers to take "all reasonable precautions" to ensure their workplace is safe. Employers must:

WHMIS symbols enable employees to easily identify these hazardous materials. They signal the need to take appropriate precautions to minimize the risk of health hazards, such as toxicity, and physical hazards, such as explosiveness. This knowledge is the first step to understanding how to handle and store hazardous materials safely to protect yourself and your colleagues from harm.

A solid understanding of WHMIS symbols empowers everyone on your team to make informed decisions and reduce the risk of accidents and injuries. This creates a culture of safety.

Types of WHMIS symbols and their meanings

WHMIS symbols are standardized pictograms that represent specific types of hazards. There are a total of nine symbols with the characteristic red diamond, adopted from GHS. There's also one all-black, round pictogram for biohazards, retained from Canada’s original WHMIS system. WHMIS defines hazards in two classes: Physical Hazards and Health Hazards. Understanding these symbols and their meanings will help you identify and respond to potential hazards effectively.

Chart depicting WHMIS symbols, class and meanings (what hazards may be present)

Familiarizing yourself with these symbols and their meanings allows you to quickly identify potential hazards and take appropriate safety precautions.

Pro tip: SDS RiskAssist software enables occupational health and safety officers to easily flag and sort all chemical products used in your workplace by their WHMIS hazard symbols - see how it works here:

How to use WHMIS symbols effectively

WHMIS symbols provide valuable information about the hazards of chemical products in the workplace. They are designed to catch people's attention and visually warn them of danger.

In addition to knowing what WHMIS symbols mean, it is important for employees to look for the associated hazard statement. Hazard statements are brief, clear, standardized sentences that describes the most significant hazards of the product. Examples of hazard statements are: "fatal if inhaled" and "may cause cancer."

In addition to the WHMIS symbols and hazard statements, it is essential to consult the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for detailed information about the hazardous material. The SDS provides comprehensive information about the substance's properties, handling procedures, storage requirements and emergency response measures.  

Pro tip: You can use SDS RiskAssist software to add your own site-specific, customized safety procedures for hazardous chemical products. These customized instructions are included in our convenient SafetySnap one-page SDS summaries, which make it easy for employees to understand safe handling procedures at a glance.

WHMIS training and education for employees

Providing comprehensive WHMIS training and education for employees is another important pillar of workplace safety and compliance with safety regulations. By investing in employee training, you can empower your team to understand and interpret WHMIS symbols effectively. This reduces the risk of accidents and injuries.

Pro tip: SDS RiskAssist technology helps employers meet WHMIS’s site- and job-specific training requirements with on-demand micro-training modules that address the most common hazards in your workplace, as determined by our software.

WHMIS training should be an ongoing process. This commitment to continuous education will help maintain a culture of safety and ensure that employees remain knowledgeable and prepared to handle potential hazards effectively.

Finally, promoting open communication and reporting of potential hazards will further ingrain your safety culture. Encourage employees to report any concerns or incidents related to hazardous materials and WHMIS symbols, and provide a clear process for addressing these issues promptly to create a safer working environment for everyone.

Common misconceptions about WHMIS symbols

Although WHMIS symbols are designed to provide clear and concise information about potential hazards, there are common misconceptions that can lead to confusion or misinterpretation. Addressing these misconceptions is important to ensure the effective use and understanding of WHMIS symbols.

One common misconception is that WHMIS symbols alone provide sufficient information about the hazards associated with a substance. As discussed above, while WHMIS symbols are an essential component of hazard communication, they should be used in conjunction with other sources of information, such as Safety Data Sheets (SDS) and workplace-specific protocols. These additional resources provide more detailed information about the specific risks and precautions associated with a substance.

Additionally, some individuals may mistakenly believe that WHMIS symbols are only relevant to those directly handling hazardous materials. In reality, WHMIS symbols are important for all employees, as they provide valuable information about potential risks and the necessary precautions to take. Even if you do not directly work with hazardous materials, understanding WHMIS symbols can help you recognize and respond to potential hazards in your environment.

Lastly, there is a misconception that once you have learned the meanings behind WHMIS symbols, there is no need for further education or training. However, WHMIS symbols and safety regulations can evolve over time. It is essential to stay up to date with any changes and participate in ongoing training and education to ensure that you are well-informed and prepared to handle potential hazards effectively.

By addressing these common misconceptions, you can promote a more accurate understanding of WHMIS symbols and their use.

Updates and changes to WHMIS symbols

WHMIS symbols, like many other safety standards, are subject to periodic updates and changes to reflect new knowledge and technology. Staying informed about these updates is crucial for maintaining compliance with safety regulations and promoting a safe working environment.

In December 2022, Canada's federal Hazardous Products Act and Hazardous Products Regulations (HPR) introduced changes that affect some WHMIS symbols. Note that suppliers have a three-year transition period (to December 15, 2025) to bring product classifications, safety data sheets and labels into compliance with the amendments. For most workplaces, the most notable impact will be seen in the changes to the flammable gases class, and the new class of chemicals under pressure. 

To stay updated on changes to WHMIS symbols, regularly consult official sources such as the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, which provides information and resources related to WHMIS. These sources will provide detailed information about any updates, changes, or new symbols introduced to the system.

Disclaimer: Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, SDS RiskAssist does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. SDS RiskAssist is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.

 

 


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SDS RiskAssist an Ontario-based company that uses the power of technology to give employers control and understanding over the otherwise pervasive and worrisome use of chemicals. SDS RiskAssist enables workers to know why chemicals are being used, what their benefits and hazards are and how to use them safely! Workers can access this knowledge via mobile or desktop SafetySnaps™, from anywhere in the world. SDS RiskAssist is the winner for 5 years running, of Readers’ Choice Awards by Canadian Occupational Safety Magazine (2018-2022); the 2019 Innovation Guelph Startup of the Year Award; the 2019 Quinte Business Achievement Award (Trailblazer category) and The Ottawa Network’s 2020 Bootstrap Award (SaaS category). We support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, working with our clients to take action for a sustainable planet.