The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System provides data on many aspects of handling hazardous materials that was not available to workers and employers in past years. This lack of information has resulted in devastating losses of life, limb and property at different locations throughout Canada.
WHMIS was implemented in October 1988 by a combination of federal and provincial legislation.
The federal Hazardous Products Act was amended to require suppliers of hazardous materials called "controlled products" to provide adequate labels and Material Safety Data Sheets [MSDS's] as a condition of sale and/or importation.
The Controlled Products Regulations, issued under the authority of the Hazardous Products Act, contain requirements which specify the form and content of supplier labels, the types and arrangement of information on Material Safety Data Sheets, conditions of exemption and the details of the criteria that define a controlled product.
The Ingredient Disclosure List contains the names of chemicals which must be identified on Material Safety Data Sheets if those chemicals are present in controlled products above a specified concentration.
The Hazardous Materials Information Review Act established a Commission to rule on claims and appeals related to exemptions from disclosure of confidential business information. The Hazardous Materials Information Review Regulations provide criteria for determining the validity of a claim for exemption.
Federal and Provincial Occupational Safety and Health [OSH] legislation requires employers to provide labels, MSDS's and worker education programs in the workplace. The model for this legislation is provided by the Provincial Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System Regulations.
In British Columbia, the Workers' Compensation Board is the agency responsible for the enforcement of the WHMIS regulations.
WHMIS: rationale and key elements
WHMIS is a nationwide system to provide information on hazardous materials used in the workplace. WHMIS recognizes the interests of workers, employers, suppliers and regulators, balancing the worker's right to know with industry's right to protect confidential business or product information.
Exposure to hazardous material can cause or contribute to a variety of health effects including, but not limited to skin irritation, burns, sensitization, heart ailments, kidney or lung damage, neurologic injury, reproductive effects and cancer. Some materials may also be safety hazards in that they can contribute to fires, explosions and other accidents if improperly stored or handled.
Findings of a recent federal social-economic impact analysis estimated the social costs of exposure to hazardous materials in the workplace to be about $600 million a year. Approximately one in four Canadian workers is exposed to chemical hazards on the job. In BC one worker is injured every 7 minutes from exposure to either chemical or physical hazards.
Due to the seriousness of these safety and health problems and the lack of information available to employers and employees, the federal-provincial-territorial governments agreed to implement WHMIS with the goal of reducing the incidence of illness and injuries caused by hazardous materials in the workplace.
WHMIS is a system of information delivery with three key elements.
- Labels on hazardous materials and their containers which alert employers and workers to the dangers of products and basic safety precautions;
- Material Safety Data Sheets [MSDS] — technical bulletins which provide detailed hazard and precautionary information on the products. They provide supplementary data to the label, and
- Worker Education programs which provide instruction on hazards and additional training in safe work procedures.
WHMIS also includes mechanisms for the regulatory agencies to rule on claims made by suppliers and/or employers for the right to withhold certain product information from labels and MSDS's for reasons of confidential business information [trade secrets] and for appeals to these rulings.
National Fire Protection Association [NFPA] system
This system is intended to provide information for emergency response personnel [i.e. fire fighters], which can be read at a distance to alert them of potential hazards. It does not provide any descriptive information. These are coloured labels.
Some labelling systems have tried to incorporate this symbol with other WHMIS requirements. It can be used as an addition to the WHMIS requirements, but cannot replace them.