Safety Articles

Understanding Canada’s Materials Labeling System

Image courtesy of Canada Centre of Occupational Health and Safety

On February 11, 2015, Canada aligned the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) with the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). This alignment, known as WHMIS 2015, replaced Canada’s Controlled Products Regulations (CPR) with the Hazardous Products Regulations (HPR). The intent of Canada’s GHS implementation is to help strengthen worker health and safety, facilitate trade with the United States, and enhance the competitiveness of Canadian suppliers of hazardous workplace chemicals.

Supplier Safety Data Sheets and labels for hazardous products shipped to Canada must conform to chemical regulations under WHMIS 2015 by June 1, 2017. Health Canada has issued guidance documents to inform manufacturers and distributors of the new WHMIS 2015 regulations, mandatory language requirements, and deadlines for compliance.

Understanding the Basics

In 2003, the United Nations adopted the GHS. The classification of health and physical hazards and the general guidelines for preparing labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) for hazardous chemicals were outlined in the UN GHS.

Canada WHMIS first became law in 1988 through a series of complementary federal, provincial, and territorial legislation and regulations. This original system was identified as WHMIS 1988. Canada WHMIS 2015 differs from Canada WHMIS 1998 in the manner by which workplace hazardous chemicals are classified, in the actual classification of health and physical hazards themselves, and in the use of standardized language obtained from the UN GHS.

The underlying principle of GHS is that the same set of rules for classifying hazards and the same general format and content for SDSs and labels are adopted and used around the world. The required SDS format specifies a 16-section heading, the order of information, and the information provided under those headings. Safety Data Sheets issued by chemical manufacturers and importers must include the applicable GHS label elements:

Signal Word: “Danger” or “Warning” indicates the severity of the hazard.

GHS Pictograms: convey the health, physical, and environmental hazard information assigned to a specified GHS hazard class and category.

Health and Physical Hazard Statements: describe the nature and degree of the stated hazard.

Precautionary Statements: describe measures to minimize or prevent effects from exposure or improper storage of the hazardous chemical.

On the SDS and Label

A Canada supplier has the legal obligation to assess whether its product — be it a single chemical or chemical mixture — is considered hazardous under the new criteria defined under Canada WHMIS 2015, even though that same chemical product may not have been previously covered by Canada WHMIS 1988.

Under the Hazardous Products Regulation, suppliers and importers must provide a WHMIS 2015 GHS Safety Data Sheet and label for every chemical product shipped into Canada. The SDS and label must be written in both English and French, with the required SDS information appearing on a single, bilingual SDS, or on separate English and French language SDSs, thereby constituting a bilingual Canada WHMIS 2015 SDS.

The bilingual English and French label must take into account products containing a carcinogenic ingredient at a concentration of 0.1 percent or more (Category 1 or 2). The HPR also sets out an exemption for a hazardous product that is packaged in a container that has a capacity of 100 ml (3.4 oz.) or less, as well as an exemption that applies to hazardous products packaged in a container that has a capacity of 3 ml (0.1 oz.) or less.

The Canada WHMIS 2015 SDS and label must clearly outline the hazards of the product, how workers may be protected from the stated hazards, what steps workers must take in the event of an emergency, such as a spill, and how to obtain additional information on the product itself. The specific legislation of the employer’s Canadian jurisdiction also must be clearly stated, where applicable. Suppliers must provide an SDS at the time of sale and within 90 days from when significant data impacting the classification of the product or protection against the hazard becomes available.

In addition, Health Canada incorporated several additional classifications into Canada WHMIS 2015, including combustible dusts, simple asphyxiants, pyrophoric gases, water reactive substances, the bio-hazardous infectious materials hazard classification, and health and physical hazards not otherwise classified, among others.

Transition Period

During the transition to Canada WHMIS 2015, direct suppliers may ship their hazardous products with WHMIS 1988 Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) and labels or Canada WHMIS 2015 SDSs until May 31, 2017. On June 1, 2017, Canadian manufacturers and importers are required to sell or import hazardous products with Canada WHMIS 2015-compliant labels and SDSs only. By June 1, 2018, all Canadian distributors are required to sell or import only those hazardous products with Canada WHMIS 2015-compliant documents. And, by December 1, 2018, all Canadian employers are required to comply with WHMIS 2015.

What Wasn’t Adopted

As explosives are covered by the Explosives Act, Health Canada did not adopt the explosives hazard class as defined by the UN GHS. In addition, GHS environmental hazards classes were not adopted, as environmental hazards are not considered workplace hazards in Canada. Some of the lowest hazard categories within a hazard class also were not adopted, such as Acute Toxicity – Category 5. And, products covered under other Canada legislation, such as manufactured articles, are not covered under Canada WHMIS 2015.

For additional regulatory information on hazardous chemicals intended for use, handling or storage in the Canadian workplace, visit Health Canada website at

About the Author:

Louisa Mayers is the Director of Regulatory Services for SDSpro, LLC. SDSpro offers the industry’s leading solutions for global Safety Data Sheet and label authoring services, SDS management distribution, regulatory reporting, and hazardous chemical inventory management. For more information, contact: SDSpro, (888) 673-7776,

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