Just about all Canadian workplaces have at least some chemicals and substances that are dangerous to the environment, human health or both. The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) laws require companies to take measures to protect workers and others exposed to these chemicals. One of the key WHMIS requirements is the use of special labels and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) to communicate key information about the hazards posed by each particular substance. Ensuring compliance with WHMIS requirements is no easy task but the WHMIS classification and labelling system has been in place for decades and most EHS coordinators understand how it works. But now that system is about to undergo major changes.
The federal government has announced that Canada will implement a new international system for classifying and labelling chemicals called the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). And the current WHMIS laws and regulations will need to be modified to comply with the GHS. The original goal was to implement GHS in Canada by 2008, which obviously hasn’t happened. But although the final GHS implementation date hasn’t been set yet, EHS coordinators need to get up to speed now on what the GHS will mean for their companies so they’re prepared to comply when the new rules take effect.
We’ll explain what the GHS is and how it will impact current WHMIS classification, labelling and MSDS requirements. And to help you get a grasp of the new system and how it differs from the current one, there’s also a table on page X comparing specific GHS requirements to their equivalent WHMIS requirements.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE GHS
You may be thinking, “WHMIS is working fine. So if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” The WHMIS system may, in fact, be working perfectly well in Canada and for companies that do business only in Canada and use only Canadian suppliers. But these days, few companies operate wholly within Canada or any other single country. Many Canadian companies sell goods, get materials or supplies from, maintain facilities or conduct some operations in other countries. Consequently, they’re subject to not only WHMIS but also the national hazardous substance regulations of the different countries in which they operate. And that’s where the GHS comes in.
Why the GHS Was Created
The idea for the GHS came about in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The participants, including Canada, recognized that the production, handling, transport and use of chemicals pose a real danger to human health and the environment. Many countries have systems for classifying and labelling chemicals. Although these national systems are similar in some ways, there are enough significant differences to create trade barriers, impede compliance and cause confusion.
For example, most national systems require the use of labels and some sort of safety data sheets to communicate the characteristics of a hazardous substance to people who might be exposed to it. But specific label and safety data sheet requirements vary from country to country. Thus, a company that manufactures a product that contains certain hazardous substances may need to create different labels and MSDSs for each country to which it ships that product.
The summit participants agreed that an internationally-harmonized system for classifying and labelling chemicals would ensure that companies, workers and other end-users would have consistent and appropriate information on chemicals and their hazards. They signed an agreement committing themselves to the development of “a globally harmonized hazard classification and compatible labelling system, including material safety data sheets and easily understandable symbols.” This initiative is now known as the GHS.
According to Health Canada, the GHS is expected to:
- Enhance protection of human health and the environment by providing an internationally comprehensive system for hazard communication;
- Promote regulatory efficiency and facilitate compliance;
- Provide better and more consistent information about hazardous chemicals;
- Reduce the need for duplicative testing and evaluation of hazardous chemicals;
- Eliminate barriers to international trade in chemicals whose hazards have been properly assessed and identified internationally; and
- Provide a recognized framework for countries that don’t currently have their own hazardous substance communication systems.
How the GHS Was Created
The GHS wasn’t created overnight. A group was formed under the Inter-organization Program for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) to coordinate and manage the development of the GHS. Various governments, including Australia, Canada, China, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., and international organizations, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), participated in its development. The group presented the proposed GHS to a UN subcommittee, which formally adopted it in 2002 and published it in 2003. A second, revised edition of the GHS was published in July 2007.
How the GHS Works
The GHS doesn’t just apply to workplaces. It will also apply to consumer chemicals and chemicals during transport. As CCOHS explains, the GHS has two major elements:
Classification of chemical hazards. The GHS sets rules or criteria for classifying both pure chemicals and mixtures. Within this classification system, there are three major hazard groups:
- Physical hazards;
- Health hazards; and
- Environmental hazards.
Within each of these hazard groups, there are “classes” and “categories.” For example, criteria have been developed for classifying chemicals for the following:
- Physical hazard classes: flammable liquids, solids and gases; oxidizing liquids, solids and gasses; and explosive substances;
- Health hazard classes: acute toxicity, cancer, skin irritation/corrosion, reproductive toxicity and aspiration hazards; and
- Environmental hazard class: hazardous to the aquatic environment (criteria for the hazardous to the terrestrial environment class are currently under development).
Each of the classes or categories is called a “building block.” Countries can determine which building block(s) to adopt for use. They must then use the GHS rules for classification and communication corresponding to the block(s) they choose. For example, if Canada chooses to adopt the building block for the environmental hazard class for chemicals hazardous to the aquatic environment, it must then comply with the GHS rules for classifying such chemicals and requirements for labels and MSDSs for these chemicals.
Communication of hazards. Classifying hazardous substances in the GHS is just step one. Once a chemical has been properly classified, the information about the hazards associated with its classification must be effectively communicated to anyone who may come in contact with the substance, including workers at companies that manufacture, distribute and use the product as well as members of the general public. Much like WHMIS (and most other national hazardous substance systems), the GHS relies on two items for hazard communication:
- Labels: The GHS specifies the information that must appear on a substance’s label, such as the chemical’s identity, hazard statement, signal word and pictogram. It also suggests precautionary statements that may, but aren’t required to, appear on a label.
- SDSs: The GHS spells out the requirements for SDSs. For example, each SDS must have 16 sections that appear in a designated order.
GHS & CANADIAN LAW
The Canadian government committed to the GHS from the start. Health Canada is coordinating the Canadian position on the GHS with help from Environment Canada and Transport Canada. In October 2003, Canada held a workshop on the GHS to identify issues and options for its implementation in Canada. And since 2004, it has been conducting technical consultations with multi-stakeholder working groups on implementation of GHS. But as of Feb. 2009, a final decision on an implementation date hasn’t been made.
What still has to be done for the GHS to be implemented in Canada? First, the government must identify which buildings blocks in the GHS it wants to adopt. It will then need to amend the existing laws to reflect the GHS classification and communication rules for those building blocks. The laws and related regulations that are likely to be impacted include the:
- Federal Hazardous Product Act;
- Federal Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act;
- Federal Pest Control Products Act; and
- Provincial and territorial laws and related regulations on these topics as well as OHS laws.
Naturally, Canada’s current WHMIS system will be directly impacted by the implementation of the GHS. All existing WHMIS requirements will need to be adapted to reflect the new GHS hazard classification criteria and communication rules, which means changes to the WHMIS labelling and MSDS requirements. And, despite the overlap, there are some key differences between the two systems. For example:
- The GHS has more hazard classes than WHMIS;
- SDSs under the GHS have 16 sections while MSDSs under WHMIS have nine; and
- The GHS applies to some chemicals that are exempt or partially exempt from WHMIS.
Impact on Your Company
How will implementation of the GHS in Canada impact your company? If it manufacturers chemicals, it will have to reclassify those chemicals under the GHS rules, and generate GHS-compliant labels and SDSs. If your company uses such chemicals, you’ll have to get updated SDSs for those chemicals and ensure that new GHS-compliant labels are on them. And although the GHS doesn’t include specific training requirements for workers who handle chemicals, under Canadian law, you’ll clearly have to train workers on the GHS, including:
- The new hazard classes and categories;
- The new format for SDSs;
- Understanding the information on the GHS-compliant labels and SDSs.
The bad news: When it comes to managing hazardous substances, change is on the horizon. And just when you finally got a handle on the WHMIS requirements! The good news: A lot of work still needs to be done before the GHS can be implemented in Canada. And even when that work is done, it’s likely that the new requirements will be phased in to allow for a smooth transition. So you have plenty of time to prepare. But it’s important to be aware of the GHS and understand how it will impact the management of dangerous chemicals in your company. The Insider will stay on top of the GHS implementation process in Canada and keep you apprised of all key developments.Email This Post