WHMIS & Hazardous Materials

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WHMIS and Hazardous Materials

What is WHMIS?

“WHMIS” stands for Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System. It is a comprehensive system that provides information on how to use hazardous materials safely at work.

WHMIS uses a combination of standardized labeling, material safety data sheets (MSDS) and education to keep people informed of any potential hazards associated with materials and chemicals they use at work.

The WHMIS system must be used by all workplaces in Canada – it’s the law. For the system to be effective, employers have to provide workers with written instructions and training for using hazardous materials. Workers must follow those instructions and let their employers know if they notice any new hazards.

What is a hazardous material?

A hazardous material is any solid, liquid, or gas that can harm people, other living creatures, property, or the environment. For example, some products can cause disease when workers are exposed to them. Some can cause burns or rashes. Others may explode or catch on fire under certain circumstances.

Not all hazardous materials are governed by WHMIS. Those that are covered are known as “controlled products”. However, uncontrolled products can also be hazardous. For example, consumer products like cleaners might be dangerous if mixed with other products or if they are packaged in containers that could explode if heated or punctured.

What hazardous materials are there in retail stores?

Most retail and convenience stores do not have many dangerous chemicals on hand. However, some “ordinary” products used at work are in fact hazardous and are subject to WHMIS requirements. Some examples commonly found in retail are:

  • Cleaners for windows, floors, sinks, toilets
  • Air fresheners
  • Furniture polish
  • Paint
  • Paint thinner

If your store is attached to a gas station, you probably have a number of other chemicals and hazardous materials on site such as propane, gasoline and antifreeze. The training and information staff receives must cover the hazardous materials in the workplace.

Consumer labels

Some products that are readily available to consumers have special labels with standard symbols to indicate potential hazards. They are quite familiar but that doesn’t mean everyone understands them.

These are some common symbols used on consumer product labels:

Make sure you and everyone at work knows what these symbols mean. Hazardous consumer products usually have written instructions for what to do if a product is swallowed and whether or not it should be used in a ventilated area.

Always read the label before using any product.

WHMIS product labels

WHMIS labels are used on many industrial-strength chemicals. These are usually ordered from a supplier – they are not generally the kinds of products you could buy at a drug or grocery store.

There are two kinds of WHMIS labels.

  • Supplier labels come on product containers straight from the supplier
  • Workplace labels are homemade on the worksite. They are used when products are transferred from their original containers or when the supplier labels are worn off or missing.

Supplier labels

Materials covered by WHMIS come in containers with very specific labels and symbols. The labels have a distinctive striped border and contain information about the product, its potential hazards, instructions for protecting the user, first aid information, and the name of the supplier. Some of the symbols are the same as those on consumer labels, but WHMIS requires for even more detailed information in both English and French.  Click here for an explanation of the symbols used in the WHMIS system.

Click here for an example of a WHMIS supplier label.

For more information on WHMIS supplier label requirements and symbols, click here.

Workplace labels

When products are transferred into smaller containers, employers have to make sure that certain information is on the new container by attaching a workplace (homemade) label. Workplace labels also have to be put on containers if the original supplier label is missing or worn off.

Workplace labels have to include:

  • The name of the product
  • Specific safe handling information (including any PPE that must be used)
  • Reference to a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)

Click here for an example of a WHMIS workplace label.


Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) correspond to WHMIS labels and provide even more detailed information on the product. They are usually supplied with the product, but if not, they can be ordered from the supplier or manufacturer.

Employers have to keep copies of MSDSs for all controlled products at their stores. They also have to make the MSDSs available to workers, either online or in hard copy, and make sure workers understand how to read them.

MSDSs have to be kept up to date. Under WHMIS law, MSDSs must not be any more than three years old and must be updated more frequently as new, significant information becomes available. If you’re still using a product that was bought more than three years ago, the MSDS may not be current. Contact the manufacturer or supplier for a new version.

Workers need to be familiar with the hazards of a product before they start using it. They should consult the relevant MSDS and make sure they understand the hazards, the instructions for safe handling and storage as well as what to do in an emergency.

MSDSs can be quite technical and difficult to understand, even when they are written out as clearly and precisely as possible. Workers should be encouraged to ask questions and should be advised not to work with any material if they don’t fully understand the information on the MSDS. Employers are required to explain the MSDSs, but workers need to ask questions if they aren’t sure of something.

For an example of an MSDS and an explanation of the information that has to be included, click here.

Dealing with chemical spills

What should you do if a hazardous material is spilled? It depends on what it is. Your emergency procedures should include instructions for dealing with any major or toxic spills.

Controlled products have instructions for dealing with spills included on their accompanying MSDSs. Some consumer products also need to be dealt with carefully if they are spilled. Click here for general tips for cleaning up a consumer product spill.

Education and training

Any training session on how workers should deal with and use hazardous materials needs to enable them to answer these questions:

  • What are the hazards of the product?
  • How should you protect yourself?
  • What should you do in an emergency?
  • Where can you get more information?

The WorkSafeBC booklet WHMIS at Work provides good information for training purposes, including quiz questions and an answer key.

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