WHMIS has updated, and there are some interesting changes that reflect global hazardous materials standards. Today I talk about a surprising change and what it might mean about the direction of industry in Canada.


If you’re not a lab worker, a hairdresser, a construction worker, a research scientist, a contractor, an oil products technician, a painter, a high school student or a paramedic, chances are you may not know that all dangerous chemicals in Canada follow the same set of warnings and symbols to inform you about safety. This system is called WHMIS, the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, which involves a mini course on safe clothing, on reading pictograms and colour warnings, on SDS sheets (formerly MSDS sheets) and on how to make safety complaints for your workplace. It’s something that many, many workers have to know about and follow, and most people will tell you that it’s a mixture of common sense and intuition.

It’s also just been updated for the first time in 28 years. Which might tell you that safety and common sense hasn’t changed all that much in almost 3 decades. It might also tell you that safety is sometimes overlooked in really important ways, especially with how much we’ve learned about the world in 30 years about things like carcinogens, long-term health effects and evolved environmental attitudes.

It should be no surprise then that some things have changed. There are now three new symbols: Health Hazard, for toxicity, carcinogenic material and skin/lung sensitivity, and Exclamation Point, which covers similar health hazards but ones that are faster-acting or more severe. These take inspiration from the GHS (Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals ), which is the UN version of WHMIS (WHMIS is strictly Canadian.)  Both of these symbols are relevant and important information, and a credit to Health Canada for including them in the program.

There’s another new symbol that comes from the GHS: Environmental Hazard, which gruesomely features a dead fish and dead tree. This one is supposed to warn of hazards to aqueous environments.


Environmental Hazard

This is the part that I find interesting: WHMIS, meaning all industry in Canada, is going to be able to start using this symbol for the first time. That seems like a major win for long-term ecological practices. The catch: WHMIS makes this symbol optional, so companies that don’t want to research the marine effects, or that don’t want to scare customers away even if they know it’s dangerous, don’t have to put it at all.

WHMIS has also updated the SDS sheet to include all the standard fare; first aid measures, fire-fighting measures, storage information, ingredients, etc. But in the same trend, there are 4 new sections that cater to environmental hazards that are all completely optional : Ecological Information, which includes ecotoxicity and bioaccumulative potential (which is especially pertinent to Canadian industries like fishing where most fish now has high levels of mercury), Disposal Considerations for disposal of the product and contaminated packaging, Transport Information for special precautions and environmental concerns, and Regulatory Information for specific health and environmental regulatory information regarding this product.

To offer an argument for why this is a step in the right direction, it’s an interesting point to say that introducing but not enforcing these symbols and information sections will allow Canada to build laws and regulations in a way that won’t shock industry or put strain on small businesses, and that it will probably be mandatory the next time. After all, Canada is largely dependent on industry in natural resources, and we want to ensure that companies want to continue to develop and provide an economic strong front in our borders.

Having said that, I am unsatisfied with this approach and think we can and need to do better.

For this argument to hold, it depends on eventually adapting laws so that these ecological considerations are mandatory. Eventually is the key word. WHMIS took 28 years to update and industry is constantly changing; this is not an acceptable precedent to keep up with modern industry, particularly as environmental concerns continue to take a more global priority in industry and in politics.

The justification given by Health Canada is the following statement on their FAQ: “WHMIS is limited to chemical hazards for Canadian workplaces. Environmental hazards are not considered workplace hazards; therefore, the GHS environmental hazards classes were not adopted for WHMIS.”

This to me is incredibly faulty logic. To see how environmental hazards from workplaces affect workplaces and communities, one needs to simply take a look at the current Flint, Michigan National State of Emergency. (For those of you unaware, decades of the auto industry presence in this town in the US have made the drinking water highly polluted with things like lead, which is now showing up in the blood of children at alarming and unhealthy levels. Water is now undrinkable in this town and must be shipped in from other places.)

Another example that directly affects a centuries-old industry in Canada is the fishing industry. There is now so much mercury and bioaccumulated heavy metals in previously edible fish like tuna that children and pregnant women are recommended to restrict their intake to once a week. This is a complicated issue that would benefit from a mandatory Ecological Information section of the SDS, where bioaccumulation and toxicity are specifically mentioned in the purpose of the section.

These are both issues that have stemmed from a lack of regulations on aqueous hazards. So to the idea that “environmental hazards are not considered workplace hazards”, I say bullshit.

As a closing remark, I can’t help but wonder about how much industry influence went into the drafting of WHMIS 2015.


To read the new policies first-hand:

– SDS Sheet Addtions in 2015 –http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/whmis_ghs/sds.html

– WHMIS 2015 FAQ – http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/occup-travail/whmis-simdut/faq-eng.php#s1k

– WHMIS 2015 Pictograms – http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/whmis_ghs/pictograms.html


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