WHMIS Meets GHS: Hazcom Labels Get a New Look

GHS Symbols

The standards for classification and labeling of chemical products vary from country to country. What is considered toxic in Canada may not be considered toxic in the United States, China, or some other part of the world. Pictograms for substance toxicity or flammability may differ across borders, and some countries may not even have pictograms or indicators for certain hazard classes. These inconsistencies are what GHS targets to eliminate.

The Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) is a standard set of rules that defines chemical products and classifies the hazards associated with each of them. It communicates health and safety information through uniformly formatted GHS labels and safety data sheets (SDSs). When adopted worldwide, GHS can effectively reduce the rate of injuries and fatalities related to hazardous materials on a global scale.

GHS Labels

Material labels are the first level of chemical hazard information. They should contain enough information for workers to affect proper handling procedures and avoid hazards. When the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) finally adopts GHS, chemical labels will surely undergo a major makeover:

  1. GHS Pictograms – Labels will follow the new pictograms, which contain a black symbol on a white background bordered by a red diamond. The previous round border will no longer be used. Some WHMIS symbols, such as the “R” for “Dangerously Reactive”, will also disappear. There are nine HazCom GHS pictograms used in most countries, but there will be 10 in Canada since the old WHMIS symbol for “Hazardous Biological Material” will be kept. Note that specific pictograms are required for certain hazard classes, while some categories do not have symbols associated with them.
  2. Signal Words – The GHS system uses two signal words to communicate hazard degree on both label and SDS: Danger and Warning. The classification system specifies if it is necessary to use a signal word or noGHS Pictogramst. “Danger” is for more toxic substances and mixtures, while “Warning” is for the less hazardous ones.
  3. Hatched Border and MSDS Reference – The WHMIS hatched border and the reference to the corresponding MSDS may not be required anymore.
  4. Hazard Statements – GHS labels should have hazard statements placed close to the pictogram to provide more details on the exact health hazards that come with the substance. These statements are indicated in the GHS classification system as well.

Companies in the United States were required to train their workers on GHS by December 2013, and several other countries have followed suit. Canada Gazette Part II is expected to publish the final regulations this year, and Health Canada means to implement the “WHMIS after GHS” rules in force in 2015. Until then, employers must train their workers on both WHMIS and GHS labeling standards. This can be quite challenging for employees since pictograms differ greatly between the two systems. There are, however, training materials such as posters, wall charts, and GHS wallet cards complete with GHS terminologies and pictograms to help workers out.

Chemicals pose real dangers to human health and the environment. Many chemical-related injuries worldwide are not because of the chemicals themselves, but due to improper material handling, insufficient information, and inconsistent labels. The new GHS standards will help prevent these circumstances.