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No barrel of laughs

By Michelle Morra

When it comes to chemical safety, ignorance is your worst enemy.

Ross Armstrong doesn’t pretend to be a chemical expert. The safety supervisor at Boart Longyear Canada has developed a keen eye for spotting important health data on a material safety data sheet (MSDS) over the years, and the workers come to him when they have concerns about chemicals used at the plant. Still, he’s no chemist and he "has no problem finding out" all he can about these substances.

Health and safety experts outline some basic steps to follow for safer chemical handling in the workplace. 

Ross Armstrong doesn’t pretend to be a chemical expert. The safety supervisor at Boart Longyear Canada has developed a keen eye for spotting important health data on a material safety data sheet (MSDS) over the years, and the workers come to him when they have concerns about chemicals used at the plant. Still, he’s no chemist.

“Some of those chemical names are longer than your arm,” says Armstrong. “It’s still very intimidating to me, but if we don’t know what something is, I have no problem finding out.”

The plant manufactures drilling equipment and uses between 250 and 300 products that are considered controlled substances under Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS). Not all are dangerous, but Armstrong has learned to be on the alert for powerful degreasers and cleaning agents, “especially if they do an exceptional job and eat through anything.”

Know thy hazards 

He’s not the only one who’s intimidated, but experience has taught him that chemicals are as manageable as any other workplace hazard. In his role as safety supervisor, Armstrong has found himself somewhat of a buffer between the scientific language on MSDSs and the workers they’re supposed to protect. 

“They sometimes flip out if they see the word ‘carcinogenic,’” he says. “So I’ll explain,  ‘The product is only hazardous at a certain concentration level, but we put 40 parts of water to that.’ If they still have questions or concerns, I walk them into my office and say, ‘Let’s call the supplier and find out.’”

When he first glances at an MSDS, Armstrong looks for the “PPM” section, which says how many “parts per million” of the product workers can safely be exposed to. Then he tries to do better than the PPM. “It’s only a guideline. If it says 4.5 is okay, I might keep it to 2.5 max. The cleaning product might not be as strong and might take extra scrubbing, but the guys’ lungs are going to last longer.”

Handling chemicals

You can work safely with chemicals by following the right steps. Health and safety experts agree on some of the basics.

If you’re using a product that’s hazardous — eliminate it. If you can’t eliminate it or replace it with a safer product, minimize exposure by implementing engineering controls such as ventilation, or putting the hazardous product in an enclosed area. Consider administrative controls, such as scheduling shifts in a way that minimizes worker exposure. If there is still potential for exposure once these measures are in place, use personal protective equipment.

Since WHMIS was enacted in 1988, employers have been required to provide training on chemical hazards. WHMIS also standardized how we classify and label chemical products. Each controlled product must have the appropriate WHMIS label and be accompanied by an up-to-date MSDS. WHMIS also spells out exactly what information the MSDS must contain, such as first aid measures, and the product’s flammability, reactivity and toxicity. These mandatory practices have become the norm, helping companies do much better managing its chemicals. 

No system, however, is flawless. As companies try to keep up with an ongoing stream of new chemicals on the market, workers still sometimes get sick or injured from chemical-related respiratory exposure, skin exposure, spills, fire or explosion. We’ve identified some problem areas:

Gaps and risks for chemical safety

Small companies: The law doesn’t require a Joint Health and Safety Committee for companies of less than 20 employees. So the owner of a small company might not know the requirements, and might not have a safety professional on staff who can show others how to work safely with chemicals. If there’s high turnover, one person might learn about safety from the departing employee, who might have learned from someone with terrible habits. Small employers have additional cause for concern because they might not be as aware of  Bill C-45, a law that can hold them criminally responsible if a worker gets hurt or killed on the job. 

Inconsistent MSDSs: They come from various chemical manufacturers and suppliers, so “the sections on an MSDS are not always lined up the same way, which sometimes makes them hard to understand,” says Jamie Hansen, National Health and Safety Coordinator for the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW). Some larger organizations, he says, address the issue by reformatting MSDSs in their own standardized template. “It’s really good for training purposes, to be able to tell someone, ‘Look at Section 1 for this, Section 2 for that, and here’s where to find the toxicological information and exposure levels.’”

Overlooking the “reactivity” section of an MSDS: “People zone in on the health hazard information but often overlook the reactivity section,” says Lorraine Davison, manager of Chemical Services at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). “Reactivity is often under-recognized and poorly understood.” She gives the example of a workplace where a hydrosulphide spill was flushed into a process sewer and reacted with the acidic contents of the sewer. This created a deadly mix of hydrogen sulphide, killing two workers and injuring eight others. “Reactivity is more difficult to deal with than fire or health,” says Davison. “You have to become quite knowledgeable on the chemical you’re dealing with.” 

WHMIS training that’s too generic: The CAW’s Hansen stresses the importance of learning about the chemicals specific to the workplace. He recommends on-site training whereby the instructor trains a worker to train other workers. “Workers will hear it from someone they work with, which is important,” he says. “And worker-instructing-worker is probably the most feasible, too, because you only pay for the instructor’s time and maybe $10 for a manual.”

Wearing the wrong personal protective equipment (PPE):  “A lot of people don’t read the labels right, and they think respirators or rubber gloves are always a safe bet,” says Hansen. “Different gases, vapours, dusts and fumes require different types of respirator cartridges, depending on the size of the airborne particle. You can’t use a dust mask if you’re dealing with gas, or it’ll go right through it.” 

The same goes for safety gloves, which are made of different materials and designed for very specific kinds of hazards. Hansen has presented workers with several choices of gloves, to test their knowledge, “and some would choose a pair of gloves just because the colour matched their shirt.” 

Because of these and other issues, no one should attempt to handle chemical safety without expert help.

Tap into expert sources

Employers should have an accurate inventory of the chemicals on the job site, and a management system to track those chemicals and their MSDSs. Boart Longyear Canada decided a few years ago to outsource its MSDS management to 3E, a global provider of chemical, regulatory and compliance information services. The company took all of its paper MSDSs and scanned them into a digital format for all staff to access online. In the past, Armstrong

was responsible for making sure all MSDSs were up-to-date, an onerous task that involved flipping through binders to find the expiry date on each data sheet. 3E now takes care of that for them.

Besides managing your MSDS collection and keeping it up-to-date, a company such as 3E can alert you to chemicals on site that are subject to legislative changes. 

“Regulations might relate to a chemical, and our customers might not necessarily know what chemicals are in a product,” says Jeffrey Starr, vice president of marketing at 3E. “We have the data about the chemicals, regulations, and products, so part of our application is to look at our chemical inventory and compare it to our regulatory database. We can see very quickly where in your enterprise a change of regulation impacts your operation.”

3E operates 24/7 and also has a “Mission Control Call Centre” that people can call at any time if they urgently need an MSDS faxed to them. 

Online databases can help 

Outsourcing your MSDS management can make sense especially for downstream users, people who use the chemicals but don’t know as much about them as the experts who create or package them. CCOHS, too, manages MSDSs and has its own extensive database, which is available by subscription online or on CD-ROM. CCOHS works closely with Health Canada, the Ministry in charge of WHMIS, and has become such a household name that even health and safety regulators subscribe to CCOHS’ chemical information products.

Its primary mandate is to protect workers, however, so besides its databases of chemical profiles, CCOHS publishes easy-to-read booklets and reference guides, answers frequently asked health and safety questions on its


Answers website, (

) and has an Inquiries Service that anyone in Canada can access free of charge.

Because chemical safety involves so much more than reading a label or an MSDS, no one can handle the job alone. If you transport or dispose of chemicals, you’re subject to a myriad of requirements, forms, reports, and permits. Experts like 3E and CCOHS can help with compliance in these areas. 

“And we strongly recommend you have an emergency response strategy and structure,” says Starr. “If you have a medical concern, spill, or exposure, you need access to the professionals who can help you through that. The MSDS is a core document but not the total solution.”

Besides relying on expert help, the seasoned safety professional must also rely on his or her own instincts. “Never make assumptions about chemicals,” says Ross Armstrong. “Don’t smell something if you don’t know what it is, or you could burn your nostrils. Don’t taste it or stick your hand in it, either. Even if the salesperson is saying, ‘It’s safe’, I think, Sure it is. You drink it. You stick your hand in it.”

Freelance writer Michelle Morra is a former COS editor and an award-winning journalist. You can reach her at:

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