Canada's Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) is our single greatest tool for training workers on how to safely use chemical products. But a tool is useful only when it's applied. If it's not? "Then people get sick. It's as simple as that," says WSPS Occupational Hygienist Sara Lovell.
Sara works with companies to identify and assess the risk of exposure to hazardous agents, and recommend controls. She was quick to recognize that even the best prevention tool will succeed only if workers are engaged and active participants. That's a challenge for employers. "It's easier to recognize a broom on the floor as a tripping hazard than a fume extractor that isn’t functioning properly."
To actively engage workers in identifying and reporting chemical hazards and taking precautions, Sara offers these suggestions:
- Ensure all employees have received WHMIS training. "By law employers must provide this training," says Sara, "but it's much more than a legal obligation. Knowing how to read the WHMIS hazard symbols, labels and safety data sheets provides everyone with information they need to protect themselves and their co-workers."*
- Take WHMIS training onto the shop floor. Make sure workers understand what they've learned and how to apply it in their own workplace. If people don't understand how the chemicals they're using could affect them - is it a skin irritant? A cancer-causing agent? - they're not going to be vigilant about protecting themselves.
- Have senior management talk to workers about the chemicals being used and the controls that are in place. If people see health and safety as a company priority, then it becomes their priority.
- Encourage the joint health and safety committee to include questions about chemical safety practices in their inspections. The idea should be not about testing workers, but to identify possible gaps in training and comprehension.
- Reinforce WHMIS training by conducting safety talks on chemicals in use, the controls in place, how to recognize when they're not working, and emergency response procedures.
- Encourage workers to bring questions and possible hazards forward to their supervisors, and make sure managers and supervisors respond to questions on reported hazards effectively and in a timely manner. The worker could be reporting on something as simple as a container that is damaged or improperly labelled.
- Share the results of hazard reports with workers. Include findings, solutions and next steps, so that workers see an effective reporting system in place and know they are being heard.
"When all is said and done," says Sara, "it's important to understand that, just because there are chemicals in the workplace, they’re not necessarily going to hurt us. We just need to make the connections between how we’re using the chemicals, what the risks are, and what controls we need to have in place."
How we can help
- Gain a foundational understanding of occupational hygiene issues and potential workplace risks by attending WSPS' Health and Safety Summit: Understanding workplace hygiene hazards, December 4 in London, ON. Among the speakers: Sara Lovell on how to use a safety data sheet to protect your workers.
- Ensure all employees have received WHMIS training. WSPS offers half-day classroom training and a train-the-trainer session. Also available on site.
- Learn more about our occupational hygiene consulting services. Our technical specialists can conduct exposure risk assessments and help you identify the correct controls.
* Under WHMIS, employers are required to:
- ensure hazardous products used in the workplace are properly labelled and accompanied by safety data sheets (SDSs)
- train workers on how to use labels and SDSs
- train workers on the hazards and safe use of hazardous products in the workplace
- provide workers with access to up-to-date SDSs and labels
- ensure appropriate control measures are in place to protect workers' health and safety.