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All about WHMIS

Written by: Stacey Curry

Published on: 22 April 2024

cleaning products WHMIS

Your WHMIS overview for a safe, healthy, sustainable workplace

Understanding WHMIS is crucial to create and maintain a safe, healthy, sustainable working environment.

Employees incorrectly use chemical products in workplaces every day. The consequences range from contact dermatitis and ototoxicity to cancer and other occupational diseases that can ultimately lead to the loss of life itself. 

All workplaces use hazardous chemical products

In Canada, the cost of dangerous chemical exposures is measured in the billions of dollars, not accounting for the personal toll of human suffering.

All workplaces use hazardous chemical products, including schools, municipal facilities, manufacturing plants, dentist offices, laboratories, and healthcare and hospitality facilities. 

That’s why it's so important to understand the intent of WHMIS and to implement a comprehensive WHMIS system.

First, the basics: What does WHMIS mean?

The acronym WHMIS stands for Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System. WHMIS is Canada’s comprehensive system for safe management of hazardous products in the workplace. 

The intent of WHMIS is to provide workers with information to take necessary precautions to protect their health and safety from hazardous chemicals, and in doing so, to reduce the prevalence of occupational disease. 

Federal, provincial and territorial legislation govern WHMIS implementation.

At the federal level, the Hazardous Products Act (HPA) and the Hazardous Products Regulations (HPR) require suppliers who sell or import hazardous products intended for use, handling or storage in Canadian workplaces to provide related hazard information through labels and safety data sheets (SDSs).

The WHMIS system first took effect in 1988. WHMIS was updated in 2015 to align with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS).

GHS is an internationally consistent approach to classifying chemicals and communicating hazard information through labels and safety data sheets (SDS).

Hazard classification, cautionary labelling of hazardous products, the provision of safety data sheets (SDSs), and worker education and training programs are key elements of WHMIS.

WHMIS hazard classification

Hazard classification is the arrangement of hazards into groups based on specific criteria.

Product suppliers are responsible for classifying hazardous products based on a specific set of criteria for each of the Classes and Categories used in GHS. 

WHMIS hazard labelling 

Once a hazardous product has been classified, the product is labelled according to GHS/WHMIS, using symbols and descriptions of the hazards based on their classification.

Labels provide key information on the major hazards and the basic precautionary measures of a hazardous product (e.g., pictograms, signal words, and hazard and precautionary statements).

WHMIS Safety Data Sheets

SDSs provide more detailed descriptions of a product’s hazards. SDS information includes possible health effects related to short- and long-term exposures, and additional information on safe use, handling, storage and disposal procedures. 

WHMIS education & training

General WHMIS education and site- and job-specific training are essential to protect employee health and safety.

What are an employer’s WHMIS responsibilities?

Occupational health and safety legislation in Canada requires employers to “take every reasonable precaution to ensure the workplace is safe.” 

That responsibility includes identifying the hazards of all products their employees use in the workplace.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), WHMIS also requires employers to:

  1. Educate and train workers on the hazards and safe use of products.
  2. Ensure that hazardous products are properly labelled.
  3. Prepare workplace labels, as needed.
  4. Prepare Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), as necessary (e.g., if an employer manufactures a hazardous product that is used on-site).
  5. Provide access to up-to-date SDSs to workers.
  6. Ensure appropriate control measures are in place to protect the health and safety of workers.

WHMIS in everyday occupational health & safety practice

Some employers believe that WHMIS is an annual "one and done" tickbox exercise. Not so!

WHMIS training should be ongoing to reinforce and audit daily chemical handling in the same way training and auditing is conducted for other safety issues, like ladder safety.

The difference with ladder safety is that we can see how high people are on a ladder, whether they have three points of contact, whether the ladder is tied-off, etc.

With chemical safety, we can't "see" the hazards – their health effects may not become apparent until years later.

Know your hazards, protect your workers

From a health perspective, chemical products present four main concerns: damage to the skin and or eyes, skin absorption, ingestion or inhalation. 

Let's consider a simple task of having summer students spray paint municipal garbage cans.

Spray paint can contain ingredients like xylene, toluene, butane, traces of ethyl benzene and propane. All of these ingredients have occupational exposure limits in Ontario and most jurisdictions. 

The WHMIS hazards associated with the product can include extreme flammability, carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, reproductive toxicant, irritant, cause drowsiness and dizziness, organ damage and more.

Knowing that information from the SDS, WHMIS training for this activity should include:

  • consideration for the current health of the worker
  • whether the task takes place indoors or out
  • ignition sources near the work
  • the time needed to complete the task
  • the need for local ventilation
  • respiratory and other personal protective equipment (PPE), etc.

Remember, spray painting for an eight-hour workday has much different exposure levels to the associated harmful ingredients than doing a small project at home. 

What’s the difference between WHMIS 1988 and WHMIS 2015?

WHMIS 2015 is a more robust, more accurate system than WHMIS 1988. 

First, it allows for a more precise and nuanced determination and description of health hazards. 

It also guides how information about these hazards is presented to more effectively convey important information about safe use of chemical products. 

For example, WHMIS 2015 has more stringent rules for supplier labelling of hazards. 

This standardized labelling enables an "apples to apples" comparison of chemical products. 

In practice, these labelling requirements allow employers to more easily identify which chemical products may pose a risk to their employees' health, and make better choices for employee health and safety.

From MSDS to SDS

WHMIS 2015 also introduced a new format for Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), which were termed Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) under WHMIS 1988.

SDSs provide important information to help employers comply with occupational health and safety regulations. This includes identifying designated substances and products that have exposure limits, meaning employees can only use them for limited periods of time.

Under WHMIS 1988, the information contained in an MSDS was limited and unstandardized as compared to an SDS. 

WHMIS 2015 requires suppliers to follow a rigorous process for SDS authoring to ensure hazard information is presented in a consistent, user-friendly format. 

The MSDS red flag

MSDSs were the standard in Canada until June 1, 2015. If you have MSDSs in your collection for products that are still in use and still being produced by a supplier, you are required to source an updated SDS immediately.

Developing your WHMIS compliance system

The SDS RiskAssist software platform gives you the tools you need for a robust, intuitive WHMIS system that puts employee health and safety, and environmental sustainability, front and center.

The software automatically reads and digitizes your WHMIS SDSs to extract, organize and flag crucial chemical hazard data at the click of a button. 

This helps safety managers simplify the complexity of risk evaluation, ensure regulatory compliance and develop action plans for better, more cost-effective chemical management. 

It helps supervisors understand their crews’ chemical risks and hazards so they can provide immediate, correct direction. 

And it gives workers clear, specific, instant SafetySnap SDS summaries on the front lines, when they need information fast.

Plus, we provide WHMIS training modules that focus on the most commonly found hazards in your workplace.

Please contact us if you need help developing your WHMIS compliance system.

For more information, see our Guide to Chemical Safety Compliance.

Questions about chemical safety at your workplace? Get in touch today!

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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.