Top 7 significant changes to federal WHMIS law

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

One international system for chemical classification and labelling

Poster: Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System

Man and woman sitting at table in workroom reviewing binder

Every workplace, not to mention many homes, has hazardous chemicals – often used in the course of the business, whether it be mining, forestry, printing, or manufacturing. 

WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) is the system in Canada used for classifying and labelling hazardous workplace chemicals (“controlled products”), and this system is being updated to align with the Globally Harmonized System for Classifying and Labelling Chemicals (GHS). 

“WHMIS was created to address the Canadian worker’s right to know about the health and safety hazards associated with hazardous materials they encounter on the job and how to deal with them,” says John Levesque, Acting Director of Program and Product Development at Workplace Safety North. WHMIS became law through complementary federal, provincial and territorial legislation in 1988. As a result, all Canadian workplaces are subject to legal requirements regarding hazardous materials. 

“WHMIS imposes clear responsibilities on manufacturers and suppliers of hazardous materials, as well as on employers and employees who purchase and use these controlled products,” adds Levesque.

Three ways WHMIS provides required information to workers

  1. Warning labels on the containers of hazardous materials that provide basic information and warnings to employers and workers about those materials. These labels contain the relevant hazard classes and symbols associated with the product in the container, as well as general precautions to be taken. 

  2. Material safety data sheets (MSDS) that provide more detailed and specific information and safe handling instructions regarding each hazardous material. 

  3. Worker training in WHMIS to ensure that all workers who use, handle, store or work near hazardous materials, fully understand the specific content and significance of warning labels and MSDS.

While proposed changes to Ontario legislation were in the consultation phase, the new WHMIS 2015 national phasing-in process has begun for all federal workplaces. In February 2015, a three-year phasing-in process began for Canada’s hazardous chemical safety identification system. Over 2017 and 2018, employers and facility managers need to make sure that labels and safety data sheets for chemicals are up to date and in compliance. 

Top 7 significant changes to the federal WHMIS legislation

  1. “Controlled Products” will be called “Hazardous Products”
  2. Different hazard classes and more of them
  3. Different classification criteria
  4. New supplier labels
  5. New pictograms
  6. New 16-section product safety data sheets (SDSs)
  7. No requirement to update SDSs every three years

Comparison of old and new WHMIS label content

Chart comparing 1988 and 2015 WHMIS chemical hazard labels

Changes to WHMIS labels will be the most visible change in workplaces. See chart below for a comparison of old and new hazard symbols.

Chart showing differences between old and new hazard symbols for WHMIS 2015

Source: OHS Bulletin CH009-Chemical Hazards used with permission from Government of Alberta, Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour.

Upcoming Ontario WHMIS guide

An updated Ontario WHMIS guide is available from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD) and you’re encouraged to check for updates as well as the MLTSD website, including frequently asked questions and resource information. Once the updated information is available, Workplace Safety North expects to begin training workers on the new program before the end of 2015. 

Countries around the world are adopting a consistent standard to enable a single international system for chemical classification and labelling. Both the European Union and the United States are well on their way to implementing changes consistent with GHS, and Canada is doing the same. Once updated, the system will continue to be called WHMIS in Canada.

Important deadlines

The provinces and territories are working on harmonizing with the federal transition plan to enable a seamless update to the new WHMIS 2015 (which incorporates the GHS) in the workplace. 

Phase 1: May 31, 2017 – Requirements determined by provincial regulator; for Ontario, more detailed information is expected shortly on the Ministry of Labour website.

Phase 2: May 31, 2018 – Facilities must comply with Controlled Products Regulations (CPR) or the Hazardous Products Regulations (HPR)

Phase 3: November 30, 2018 – Facilities must full comply with the Canadian Hazardous Products Regulations (HPR).

For more information

Health Canada – Environmental and Workplace Health website

National WHMIS Information Webpage:


Pictogram poster from CCOHS (Canadian Centre for Occupation Health and Safety) – free download resource webpage including presentation, poster, FAQs 

Free resource material regarding industrial hygiene

Related training

Online and classroom training: Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) – Program material being updated to reflect Globally Harmonized System legislation coming into effect in 2015. Classroom half day $80; training applicable to all workplaces, including mining, forestry, paper, printing and converting sectors, and 1-hour self-directed e-learning course $15.