WHMIS / MSDS - what is it


Universal safety standards in the workplace

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What is WHMIS

The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS for short) is a comprehensive national system for safe management of hazardous chemicals which is legislated by both the federal and provincial jurisdictions. WHMIS is a tripartite effort of labour, industry, and government which took several years to develop; it is unique in that it represents a consensus of these three groups.

The WHMIS legislation provides that workers must be informed about the hazards in the workplace and receive appropriate training to enable them to work safely. To accomplish this, WHMIS requires all suppliers (manufacturers, importers, packagers and processors) to label and prepare Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for products they make, import, package, or process that meet the hazard criteria set out in the Controlled Product Regulations under the federal Hazardous Products Act. The buyers of these controlled products must make sure that these products are correctly labeled and that MSDSs are available. Employers must set up worker education programs that instruct workers about the contents and significance of labels and MSDSs and how to work safely with hazardous materials.

In summary, WHMIS delivers the necessary information by means of:-

bulletcautionary labels on containers of controlled products
bulletthe provision of an MSDS for each controlled product
bulleta worker education program

The ultimate goal is to create a safer workplace by providing workers with the knowledge and tools to enable them to work safely.


What are MSDS

The Material Safety Data Sheet or "MSDS" is an important source of information for the worker at the worksite. It is one of the three basic elements of the WHMIS right-to-know-system.

The MSDS includes the following: relevant technical information on the substance; a list of its hazardous ingredients, (if it's a mixture); chemical hazard data, control measures such as proper engineering controls and personal protective equipment; instructions in accident prevention while using the substance, specific handling, storage and disposal procedures; and emergency procedures to follow in the event of an accident.

The information provided is expected to be comprehensive and must include what can reasonably be expected to be known about the material and the hazards it may present. MSDS's from different companies may not look the same but they should contain the same basic information.

The following pages include the various sections of a MSDS for acetone as well as explanantion of the corresponding relevant technical information. The order in which sections appear on a MSDS may vary from one supplier to another, but the content of each section is specified by the legislation.

Each section of a MSDS must be filled in, even if it only states: "not determined" or "not applicable".


WHMIS Legislation and Exemptions

WHMIS extends through both Federal and Provincial legislative domains:-

  1. Federal legislation - because it involves the sale and import of controlled products (hazardous materials), and
  2. Provincial legislation - once a controlled product enters a workplace, jurisdiction over the product shifts from federal to provincial governments (except for workplaces under federal jurisdiction, where the provisions of the amended Canada Labour Code apply).


Federal Legislation

The federal legislation was enacted through the passage of Bill C-70 on June 30, 1987. This Bill accomplishes the following:-

  1. It applies the labelling and other information requirements of WHMIS to suppliers of hazardous materials and establishes criteria for determining which substances are deemed hazardous.

    For this purpose the Hazardous Products Act (HPA) [see below] was amended to apply the WHMIS labelling and MSDS provisions to materials which fall into one or more of the clases of hazardous materials listed in Schedule II of the Act. The materials included in these classes are known as "controlled products".

    The Controlled Products Regulation (CPR) prescribes:

    1. the detailed scientific criteria for determining whether or not a product falls into one or more of the classes of controlled products,
    2. the information which must be disclosed on labels, and MSDSs, and
    3. the conditions under which certain controlled prodcuts are exempted from the requirements covering labels and MSDSs.

    The Ingredients Disclosure List (IDL) was established, to be used by suppliers when preparing MSDSs; if a substance contains an ingredient appearing on this list in concentrations at or above the level shown for that ingredient, the ingredient must be named on the MSDS together with its percentage concentration in the substance.

  2. It allows manufacturers to protect legitimate confidential business information or "trade secrets", without compromising the information system. The Hazardous Material Information Review Act (HMIRA) is an entirely new law enacted to perform this function.

    The regulations made under the HMIRA establish the criteria against which the validity of claims for trade secret protection will be decided.

  3. It applies WHMIS to employers and employees in workplaces under the federal labour jurisdiction by amending Part IV of the Canada Labour Code.


Provincial Legislation

The workplace falls under provincial jurisdiction and is governed by the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

This Act outlines the role of the employer, the supervisor and the employee in the workplace. It places duties on these groups to ensure that the worksite is made a safe and healthy place to work. The Act gives the worker the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to know about hazards on the job and the right to representation on a Joint Health and Safety Committee.

To implement WHMIS in Ontario, the legislature amended the Occupational Health adn Safety Act (OSHA) by means of Bill 79, passed on June 29, 1987.

A WHMIS regulation, Ontario Reg. 644/88 (Oct 31st, 1988), based on the tripartite model regulation, was adopted under the amended OHSA; this regulation sets out the employer duties under WHMIS. Bill 79 (see below) also amended the act to cover hazardous physical agents such as noise, vibration and radiation; so that the supplier and employer provide appropriate information respecting the device which emits hazardous physical agents.

An additional feature of the bill includes the requirement for workplace inventories; the employer is required to develop and maintain an inventory of hazardous materials and hazardous physical agents in the workplace.


Exemptions from WHMIS Legislation

The following products are exempt from the WHMIS legislation:-

  • wood or wood products;
  • tobacco or tobacco products;
  • manufactured articles;
  • products being transported if handled in accordance with the requirements of the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act (Ontario) or the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act (Ontario);
  • hazardous waste.


Exemptions from WHMIS Labelling and Material Safety Data Sheet Requirements

The requirements for Material Safety Data Sheets and Supplier Labels, Laboratory Supply House Product Labels, and Laboratory Sample Labels do not apply to the following:-

  • explosives within the meaning of the Explosives Act(Canada);
  • cosmetics, devices, drugs or food within the meaning of the Food and Drug Act (Canada);
  • controlled products within the meaning of the Pest Control Products Act (Canada);
  • prescribed substances within the meaning of the Atomic Energy Control Act (Canada); or
  • products, materials or substances packaged as consumer products and in quantities normally used by the consuming public.

Note: Buyers/Users of these products must comply with all labelling requirements prescribed within the above acts and regulations. Employers are still required to educated employees regarding the hazards, safe handling, storage and disposal of such materials.


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