Canada has set standards for industrial chemical hazard communication since 1988, when the federal government introduced the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS). This system provided the communications framework for identifying such materials and their use, as highlighted by the now-iconic symbols that range from the skull-and-crossbones found on barrels of toxic substances in waterfront warehouses to the flame imagery on canisters of flammable gases.

WHMIS is now in the midst of its first major transition, which will correlate these familiar symbols with the internationally employed Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling for Chemicals (GHS), which itself dates back to the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. There is already a great deal of overlap between these two systems, but the move will become apparent to most Canadians through a slightly different visual lexicon for describing hazards. “Those principles of the system remain the same as they were in 1988,” says Rosslynn Miller-Lee, who manages the Assessment, Compliance & Enforcement Division of Health Canada. “What’s changed in terms of the adoption of the GHS in Canada are the criteria that we apply for the classification and the specifics of the communication.”

For example, while warning pictograms under WHMIS were black and white with a round black border, under GHS such pictograms are contained in a red square. In many cases the pictograms are highly similar, so the labelling should remain familiar to anyone using the product. “If they’re working with the same chemical that they’ve worked with for the past 10 years, the hazards of that chemical haven’t changed,” Miller-Lee says.

Even so, as part of the transition to GHS, occupational health agencies across the country are responsible for ensuring that employers bring their staff up to speed on these changes. Workers must have a formal training in GHS before they can work with products containing the new labels. “Each of those agencies is going through the process, and they’re all at different stages within that process, of amending their legislation or regulations as the case may be, to adopt these new requirements within their jurisdictions,” she says.

This move began when GHS came into force in Canada in February 2015. However, several key deadlines still lie ahead. Suppliers and importers have until June 2017 to convert their products to the new system, which goes by the name WHMIS 2015. Distributors and resellers have another year to change over their stock and individual workplaces must ensure the compliance of any items on site by the end of 2018. Starting in June of this year, any company wishing to protect confidential business information around its chemical products had to do so in accordance with WHMIS 2015.