GHS set to replace WHMIS – sort of – in 2015

Global standard for handling hazardous materials has new classification rules, requirements – but WHMIS name will remain in Canada
By Jessie Callaghan
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/22/2013

The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) provides information on the safe use of hazardous materials in Canadian workplaces. Information is provided by means of product labels, material safety data sheets (MSDSs) and worker education programs.

Currently, the WHMIS classification rules and label and MSDS requirements are unique to Canada. Other countries have their own requirements for hazard communication. But with many products moving among countries, these differences in requirements led to inconsistencies and confusion in the way product hazards were communicated, sometimes adversely impacting health and safety.

The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) was developed to help standardize chemical hazard classification and communication worldwide. Generally speaking, countries that have implemented the GHS will use the same hazard classification, labelling and data sheet rules.

The GHS has already been implemented in many countries around the world including the United States and members of the European Union, two of Canada’s largest trading partners.

While GHS will be implemented in Canada, it is important to remember it will not actually replace WHMIS. Instead, WHMIS will be modified to incorporate GHS and there will be some important changes, but it will still be called WHMIS.

There will be new classification rules and label and Safety Data Sheet (SDS) requirements (MSDS will be renamed SDS).

The implementation of GHS promises to deliver several benefits for workplaces, such as:

• improved, consistent hazard information

• the encouragement of the safe transport, handling and use of chemicals

• the promotion of better emergency response to chemical incidents.

How will WHMIS stay the same?

The roles and responsibilities of suppliers, employers and workers are not likely to change significantly due to GHS. Suppliers will still be required to classify hazardous products and prepare SDSs and labels for customers. Employers will continue to make sure products are labelled and SDSs are available to workers.

WHMIS training and education will continue to be vital after GHS, as employers must ensure employees are educated and trained. Workers will still have to learn about WHMIS labels and symbols (pictograms) and participate in training programs so they know how to protect themselves and co-workers.

How will GHS change WHMIS?

Classification will be the first area of change. The new hazard classes will have more specific names, such as “carcinogenicity.” Within each class, there will be one or more categories. The category will communicate the degree of hazard, with a category one being more hazardous than a category two, and so on.

WHMIS will likely adopt all of the GHS health and physical (fire and reactivity) hazard classes. Environmental hazards (such as aquatic toxicity) will not be regulated under WHMIS. It is likely WHMIS will continue to include some hazards currently not in the GHS system, such as biohazardous materials.

The requirements for supplier labels will also change and include a few new requirements. The most noticeable change will be the new pictograms in place of the WHMIS symbols as well as the use of a signal word (“warning” or “danger”). Depending on the hazard class and category, a specific signal word, hazard statement, pictogram or precautionary statement will be required and must appear on the label.

SDSs will use a 16-section format with standardized information requirements for each section. The current nine-section format for MSDSs will no longer be acceptable.

Another important change is the product hazard classification and required product label information will appear in the hazard identification section of the SDS. The requirement to update SDSs every three years will likely be discontinued.

When will the changes occur?

This is the most frequently asked question related to GHS implementation in Canada. Health Canada is the government body responsible for making the required changes to the WHMIS-related laws. It published a consultation document with proposed changes to the regulations in June 2013, with comments accepted until Sept. 15, 2013.

The goal is to publish the final regulations in 2014 and to have the updated WHMIS laws in force by June 1, 2015.

“In force” means suppliers may begin to use and follow the new requirements for labels and SDSs for hazardous products sold, distributed or imported into Canada at that time.

Provincial, federal and territorial WHMIS workplace regulations will also require updating. It is expected jurisdictions will aim to update these regulations by 2015 or later. Employers will be expected to update their WHMIS program and training to include the alignment with GHS — but the exact timelines are still unknown.

It is also expected there will be a transition period to allow suppliers and employers time to implement the new WHMIS requirements.

In the meantime, employers can get ready for the proposed changes to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.

Jessie Callaghan is senior technical specialist, chemical, at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton. For free resources on GHS, including online courses, fact sheets and posters, visit

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