Slow evolution from WHMIS to GHS

Canada ready to go global with hazardous materials safety system but move on hold until U.S. catches up

If the acronym WHMIS doesn’t ring a bell, one of its warning labels surely will: An encircled skull and crossbones, indicating the chemicals in that container are “materials causing immediate and serious toxic effects.”

Developed in the 1980s, WHMIS — Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System — is Canada’s national hazard communication program consisting of symbols and warning labels for consumers and material-specific safety data sheets that guide the handling of dangerous substances in the workplace, as well as related worker education and training. ¬WHMIS sprang from what many see as a model of co-operative federal, provincial and territorial legislation and joint efforts by both public and private sector organizations.

Now there’s a move afoot to bring ¬WHMIS in line with standardized hazard warnings and dangerous substance controls across the globe under the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). The new banner has some serious international backing, including the United Nations (UN), the International Labour Organization, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the European Union (EU).

“GHS really got its start at the UN’s Earth Summit conference in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992,” says Gordon Lloyd, the vice-president of technical affairs at ¬Ottawa-based Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association (CCPA), a contributing organization to WHMIS.

“It made sense that as international trade in chemical products grows that we should have a standardized system. Canada, the United States, Japan, some other countries, as well as the EU had all developed their own systems. But they pretty much agreed there should be one.”

Arguments for agreeing on global harmonization and GHS include:

• existing national systems may be similar but the differences are such that multiple classifications, labels and safety data sheets are needed for the same product when sold in different countries;

• a chemical may be deemed toxic in one country but not in another;

• complying with differing hazard classification and labelling is costly and time-consuming to businesses and regulators; and

• underdeveloped countries have little regulation of hazards — GHS provides them with a ready-made system.

Waiting game

The GHS agreement led to a protracted series of international discussions and meetings resulting in a set of agreed-upon GHS symbols, labels and safety data sheets that became available in 2002. Compliance with GHS is voluntary and can be adapted to each country’s needs, but gives its adopters a competitive advantage over non-adopting countries.

“The hope was that we in Canada would endorse GHS by 2007 or 2008,” says Lloyd. “But I think it will be 2009 or 2010 before that happens.”

Though basically ready to make the change now, Lloyd says Canada is playing a bit of a waiting game while the U.S. gets its act together and lines up federal, state and industry support.

“We don’t want to make the ‘metric mistake’ again, when we unilaterally adopted the metric system without fully considering what that would mean to our relationship with our major trading partner,” says Lloyd.

He remains optimistic, though, that the Americans will come around fairly soon on GHS.

“Diplomatically we have been pushing them and our sister organizations in the United States on the advantages of harmonizing standards. But they do have a bigger and more complex situation to deal with down there,” says Lloyd. “And it could be very expensive for Canada to change if the Americans don’t make a move.”

Lloyd and other supporters of GHS can take heart that the U.S. was the first country, followed by Canada, to develop a standardized national communication system for hazardous chemicals. Canada’s WHMIS is similar to the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) run by the U.S. government’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration, whose founding legislation stretches back to 1970.

In Canada, the controlling legislation for WHMIS is the Canadian Hazardous Product Act, Part II, and associated Controlled Products Regulations overseen by Health Canada. Together these require suppliers and importers to label hazardous products and provide safety data sheets as a condition of any sale.

In the provinces and territories, occupational health and safety laws require employers to ensure controlled products are not only properly labelled but that safety data sheets reach the hands of workers. The legislation also stipulates workers must be educated and trained on the correct storage, handling, use and disposal of hazardous products to protect their health and safety.

HR should prepare now

“I think HR people in companies handling hazardous materials should be getting ready now and start thinking about the kinds of training workshops, seminars and other tools they are going to need,” says Lloyd. “I think once the Americans make their move, our legislation in support of the change to GHS will happen fairly quickly.”

The precedent is WHMIS, he says.

“It was a miracle how easily the proposed legislation for WHMIS passed with very few changes. Certainly it was a compromise deal but everyone had agreed to it and I think the same will happen with GHS,” says Lloyd.

Andy Shaw is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!