From WHMIS to GHS: what you need to do

Jun 05, 2014

By Craig Fairclough

GHS symbolCanada's transition from WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) to GHS (Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals) inspires both dread and impatience - feelings from "I'm so not looking forward to this," to "Let's just get on with it already."

Workplaces probably have about two years to get ready. The federal government has committed to amending its current laws by June 2015, and the provinces will then amend their own laws and provide workplaces with a grace period.

WHMIS is a Canadian system for classifying hazardous products and communicating information to people using the products via labels, training and material safety data sheets. It helps ensure workers understand the hazards posed by chemicals they work with and other essential information.

GHS is a global system. Given how many chemical products cross international borders every day, having a global system is essential.

What you can assume about GHS

  • It’s the same but different. GHS applies the same approach as WHMIS but introduces new classification rules, label requirements, and formats for MSDSs, known under GHS as safety data sheets (SDSs). This means we’ll have to make changes, but we won't have to start from scratch.

  • The changes will not alter responsibilities for suppliers, employers and workers. Workplaces will be able to use their existing WHMIS processes to meet GHS requirements, such as maintaining a database of SDSs and ensuring workers receive the necessary training.

  • Workplaces will likely have to continue meeting WHMIS requirements while transitioning to GHS. This means still training workers on WHMIS and keeping MSDSs up to date while preparing for GHS.

  • Workers will be just as safe, if not safer. GHS will likely add eight product categories: consumer products, pest control products, explosives, cosmetics, medical devices, drugs, food, wood and products made from wood. As well, the technical bulletins will contain more information, offering workers greater protection.

  • The transition may complicate our work lives, but the more we do in advance, the smoother it will be.

What you need to do

Here is a suggested list of steps to take in preparing for GHS. They are by necessity broad, in that people’s roles and responsibilities around GHS vary widely, and compliance details remain to be released.

  1. Inform yourself. Chemical manufacturers in the U.S. and other countries are already producing GHS-compliant product labels. If you don't already have them in your workplace, you will soon. For an at-a-glance look at how WHMIS and GHS compare, see "WHMIS vs. GHS," below. Also, consider attending a GHS information session at a fall WSPS Partners in Prevention conference, or requesting an onsite awareness session.

  2. Inform others. If your workplace handles or stores chemical products, then at some point everyone will need to be briefed or trained on GHS. What they need to know and when depends on their responsibilities. Management may need to be reminded of its legal obligations, and will likely want to see an implementation strategy, especially if you'll be requesting additional resources. The joint health and safety committee or safety representative will want a briefing so that they can respond to workers’ questions. If you train in house, then your WHMIS trainers will want updates on training requirements and timelines. Workers will need training on GHS SDSs, especially if GHS-compliant products are already entering your workplace. Train proactively. It's more cost-effective than training reactively.

  3. Ensure your workplace is WHMIS compliant. You'll have an easier time converting smooth-running WHMIS processes to GHS than trying to improve and convert at the same time. While you're assessing the status quo, eliminate from your inventory any products no longer used or needed, and substitute non-hazardous products for hazardous. Ask managers about any upcoming production changes that may affect your workplace's WHMIS or GHS program.

  4. Review training processes and materials to determine
    • what needs to be changed
    • what you need to make the changes
    • whether there are better (i.e., faster, more economical) ways to provide training, such as combining classroom training with e-learning
    • who will make the changes
    • when to make the changes.

  5. Consider budget implications. How will the conversion affect your training budget? If you provide training in house, what will it cost to update the training? Will you have enough trainers, especially during the grace period when you may be providing both WHMIS and GHS training? What costs will be involved in shifting from MSDSs to SDSs? Do you have enough administrative support?

  6. Draft an implementation schedule and budget. Involve key stakeholders and build 50% more time than you think you will need into the schedule.

  7. Get official input and buy-in from the key decision-makers at the design stage so that you’re ready to act when the time comes.

How we can help

To remain in compliance with WHMIS requirements, WSPS offers:

Available from CCOHS: a free pre-recorded webinar, Canada's Implementation of the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) for Workplace Chemicals.

WSPS, the Ministry of Labour and other prevention system partners are also developing more resources to help workplaces transition from WHMIS to GHS as simply, effectively and painlessly as possible. Watch for details in upcoming issues of WSPS Network News.

Elements WHMIS GHS Workplace Implications
Name Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System Global Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals  
Technical documentation Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDs)
  • content organized into 9 sections:
    1. product information
    2. hazardous ingredients
    3. physical data
    4. fire and explosion data
    5. reactivity data
    6. toxicological properties
    7. preventive measures
    8. first aid measures
    9. preparation information
Safety Data Sheets (SDSs)
  • content organized into 16 sections:
    1. product and supplier identification
    2. hazard(s) identification
    3. composition/information on ingredients
    4. first-aid measures
    5. fire-fighting measures
    6. accidental release measures
    7. handling and storage
    8. exposure controls/personal protection
    9. physical and chemical properties
    10. stability and reactivity
    11. toxicological information
    12. ecological information
    13. disposal considerations
    14. transport information
    15. regulatory information
    16. other information
Training required

Must replace MSDSs with SDSs

  • Key benefit: SDSs contain more information for workers that is consistent across borders
  • To do: create and implement a transition process
Product Classifications 6 hazard classes. 2 of the 6 have 2 categories each 3 hazard groups: physical, health, environment
  • each group has hazard classes and categories
  • includes substances not previously covered: pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and explosives
Training required
  • SDSs may be up to 2X the length of MSDs
  • Benefit: more information equals better informed workers
  • Similarity in content but better organized and clearer
Hazard Symbols Black circle around a hazard symbol Red diamond frame around a hazard symbol on a white background Training required

Hazard symbols are similar so learning curve is manageable

Label Design Hatched border TBD  
Label Content
  • product name
  • hazard symbol
  • reference to MSDS
  • hazardous properties
  • precautionary measures
  • first aid measures
TBD. Besides product name, may include:
  • hazard symbol
  • hazardous properties
  • precautionary measures
  • signal word (either "Danger" or "Warning"
  • product's chemical identity
Training required
  • Key benefit: more information equals better informed workers
Training Requirements Educate and train workers to ensure the safe storage, handling and use of controlled products in the workplace TBD Training concepts and goals expected to remain intact
To do: undate training once specifics are available

For a more detailed comparison of WHMIS and GHS, visit CCOHS's OSH Answers.

Craig Fairclough is a WSPS consultant with expertise in WHMIS and GHS;