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Change from WHMIS to GHS labels impending; here’s what to do now

Hamilton, ON - It's been talked about, speculated upon and anticipated for several years, and now the Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) is closer than ever to becoming a reality. The exact date is...


Hamilton, ON – It’s been talked about, speculated upon and anticipated for several years, and now the Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) is closer than ever to becoming a reality. The exact date is not known; however with regulations for implementing GHS drawing closer, chemical suppliers are beginning to prepare for the change. The challenge they face is figuring out how to transition to the new system while still complying with the existing Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) regulations.

In Canada, supplier labels require:

– hatched border

– WHMIS hazard symbols

– product and supplier identifier

– risk phrases

– precautionary measures including first aid, and

– reference to the MSDS.

Getting started

To start moving toward the GHS system, the first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with GHS hazard classification criteria, as this forms the basis for the whole GHS system.

For many WHMIS classes, there is a direct correlation between current WHMIS hazard classes and the GHS hazard classes. For example, WHMIS Class D2A (Carcinogenicity) correlates very well with the GHS class for Carcinogenicity.

Hazard statements have been identified for each GHS class. In instances where the GHS class criteria line up with the WHMIS class, consider using the GHS hazard statements (‘May cause cancer’ or ‘Suspected of causing cancer’) as risk phrases for your WHMIS label now.

There are five different types of suggested precautionary statements: general, prevention, response (including fire, accidental release and first aid), storage and disposal. When available, the GHS precautionary statements can help to fulfill the requirement for WHMIS precautionary measures.

Be aware that you may need to supplement the GHS precautionary statements as they are not fully developed for some hazard classes. For example, for Gases under Pressure, there is only one storage phrase offered, and there are no phrases for prevention, response or disposal.

You can supplement precautionary phrases by consulting the full list of these phrases (for all GHS hazard classes) and/or with your own phrases. For the Gases under Pressure example mentioned previously, a phrase such as ‘Keep away from heat’ (from another GHS class) may be appropriate.

To reduce translation costs, all GHS phrases are available in French as well as many other languages.

Staying WHMIS-compliant

To be WHMIS-compliant, remember that supplier labels must use WHMIS elements such as WHMIS hazard symbols, a WHMIS hatched border and a reference to the MSDS. You should note that GHS pictograms, etc., cannot be used on labels in Canada at this time. However, you can move closer to GHS by adopting GHS language for the risk phrases and precautionary measures in your WHMIS labels now.

This article first appears in Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).