GHS is Coming! What Does This Mean For Canadian Employers?

Managing chemicals at the workplace is often a difficult task. A manufacturing company, for example, may have a few hundred chemicals on site that are used in the production of products. The employer’s duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to provide information, instruction and supervision to a worker to protect the health or safety of the worker applies to chemical hazards. Employers should inventory what they have on site, coordinate what is being purchased with what is actually being used or what has been replaced, assess the chemical hazards and means to control the hazards, update material safety data sheets (MSDS), and educate and train workers about the chemicals used in their day-to-day tasks.

As organizations grow and the borders for business become less and less distinct, the need for a standardized, worldwide chemical hazard classification program has come to the forefront. In 2003, the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling Chemicals (GHS) was first published and was intended to serve as the initial basis for the global implementation of the system. The GHS standardizes the communication of chemical hazards and is intended to reduce trade barriers between countries. The European Union, for example, implemented GHS in 2009.

In 1994, Canada, the United States and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), creating the world’s largest free trade area. Due to the level of trade within NAFTA, there are substantial benefits for a harmonized system in the classification of hazards and standardization of safety data sheets (formerly material safety data sheets). In May 2012, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in the United States led the charge to this harmonization, updating its Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) (1910.1200) and adopting GHS. OHSA finds that modifying the HCS to align with the GHS will enhance worker protection significantly [Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 29 CFR Parts 1910, 1915, 1917, 1918 and 1926. [Docket No. OSHAS-H022K-2006-0062 (formerly Docket No. H022K)]; p. 5].

As a NAFTA partner, what does this potentially mean for Canada? Over the past few years, training programs have become available for chemical suppliers and employers in anticipation of the implementation of GHS and the potential changes to the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS); however, there is no indication by Health Canada when the implementation may take place.

For a Canadian company supplying chemicals to both the United States and Canada, the challenge will be meeting the criteria of GHS and maintaining the current requirements of WHMIS. For example, in the GHS, material safety data sheets are known as safety data sheets. GHS requires the standardization of all safety data sheets to a 16-section layout. The 16-section layout is accepted in Canada and switching to this layout will make for an easier transition. The standardized layout ensures consistency with product information and ease in finding information about the product. However, keep in mind the safety data sheets must contain WHMIS-required content and that a GHS hazard classification may not be the same as the WHMIS classification.

Product labelling remains, but with significant changes. GHS labels will require the new hazard pictograms, signal words such as “danger” or “warning,” hazard statement,  precautionary statement, product identifier and supplier identification. The use of standardized hazard statements will replace risk phrases currently used by suppliers. The information on a GHS label will be based on the hazard category and derived from charts in the standard. In keeping with the standardization of safety data sheets, standardization of labels based on given criteria points ensures consistency. Clarification is given three-fold as a label must include a signal word, a hazard statement and a pictogram based on the hazard category. Once an employee is trained in reading the labels, the risk of misinterpretation by an employee should be minimized. At this time GHS labels are not accepted in Canada. This may affect your company if chemicals are imported from the United States. WHMIS regulations for labels will apply, including the use of WHMIS symbols, the hatched border, reference to the material safety data sheet, and the data sheet in English and French.

The employers’ duties to train and educate workers in WHMIS does not change when transitioning to GHS. Training programs will need to be revised to accommodate the new pictograms, hazard classes, labeling requirements, the meaning of signal words and hazard statements, and learning the new safety data sheet format. In the United States, Dec. 1, 2015 is the deadline for shipping containers without a GHS label. If an employer is importing chemicals from the United States, the employer should ensure workers are trained and understand the nuisances of the GHS labels and safety data sheets.

Global companies may already have begun to see safety data sheets or labels from countries in Europe showing the various pictograms, signal words and hazard statements. With the final ruling of OSHA and the timelines dictated to companies to begin the transition to GHS, labels and safety data sheets showing GHS requirements may become more prevalent in Canadian workplaces.

If Canada adopts GHS, it is not anticipated that the current communication system, WHMIS, will disappear, but it may change. The value in a standardized system is a safer workplace through consistent communication and clear understanding of the hazards a chemical may present to a worker. For a company operating in several countries, having one standard for chemical labelling and safety data sheets may significantly reduce operating costs, help companies overcome trade barriers and remain competitive.