Despite nearly a decade of studies and stakeholder consultations, Canada it is still at least a year or two away from fully implementing and legislating the Globally Harmonized System (GHS), the United Nations-backed system designed to standardize chemicals classification and labelling methods throughout the world.
Health Canada initially targeted 2008 as the year to adapt the country’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) to GHS. “Stakeholder consultations and ironing out of technicalities and differences between the two systems has taken us beyond the original target date,” according to Linda Toy, scientific and regulatory projects officer for the national office of WHMIS at Health Canada.
Current GHS implementation items are scheduled to “be revisited on May 13” so chemical suppliers, employers, organized labour, and federal, provincial and territorial governments may reach a consensus on issues such as classification of some products, warning symbols and label designs, Toy explained. The Health Canada officer gave a GHS update to attendees of the IAPA Heath and Safety Canada 2009 conference and trade show in Toronto last month.
As for realizing actual GHS-specific legislation, that could take even longer.
“It’s very hard to speculate but any legislation is bound to take 18 to 36 months to be passed,” Toy said.
Many countries have their own systems for classifying hazardous chemicals. In Canada, WHMIS is the national hazard communication standard. WHMIS’s key elements are the proper labelling of containers of WHMIS controlled products, the distributing of material safety data sheets (MSDS) and worker education and training programs. But since chemical products are often shipped from their country of origin to other nations it has become imperative for purposes of enhanced safety, handling consistency and facilitate international trade to come up with a globally accepted system of marking and handling these containers and the substances they carry. Canada was among the countries that signed the 1992 agreement in Rio to develop GHS. Canada has been holding multi-stakeholder consultations on issues related to GHS implementation in WHMIS since 2004.
GHS is not meant to replace WHMIS, Toy said during her presentation at the IAPA conference. Rather, the new system is intended to enhance existing hazard communication standards such as WHIMIS to be more in line with those of other countries to provide a consistent approach to classifying substances and mixtures according to their health, environmental and physical hazards, Toy said.
“But even as GHS is adopted, there will still be a difference from country to country. The program encourages each country to employ GHS ‘building blocks’ to bring standards closer together.”
For example, GHS allows individual countries to set their own cut-off values for hazard exposure.
In Canada, warning pictograms under WHMIS regulations are featured inside a circle border while GHS systems use a red diamond to set off the illustration. For warning labels, GHS does not require any border, but WHMIS uses hatched border.
GHS also introduces new pictograms. For example, WHMIS uses the image of a stylized letter T inside a circle to denote a carcinogenic substance. WHMIS also has only one classification for carcinogens. GHS uses the symbol of a black human silhouette with a white star on the chest. This symbol is used for three carcinogen classifications – known human carcinogens, presumed human carcinogens and suspected human carcinogens.
Safety Data Sheets under GHS also have 16 sections and include more information in some sections than is required under WHMIS. WHMIS currently requires only nine sections, although many Canadian employers and suppliers have already moved to the 16-heading format, according to Health Canada.
While work to finalize Canada’s GHS implementation continues, Toy advices employers to stick to current WHMIS regulations but also keep a close watch on GHS developments.
For information on Canadian WHMIS and GHS developments, you can visit:
For international GHS developments, you can visit: