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What is WHMIS and why do I need to know about it?

Toronto, January 27th, 2005 – The Toronto District School Board was fined $150,000 for a violation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (failing to ensure instruction as required by Section 7 (1) of the WHMIS Regulations) that resulted in the death of an employee.

This is a daunting news story but what does it mean to condominium corporations? The Toronto District School Board employs thousands of workers and most condominium corporations often only employ a handful of people.

WHMIS is a Canada-wide system designed to give employers and workers information about hazardous materials used in the workplace. In Ontario, WHMIS applies to all workplaces covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and to all federal government workplaces regardless of numbers.

Any worker who works with or near hazardous materials must be trained in how to use and handle them safely. They need to be familiar with the WHMIS symbols, workplace procedures for labelling containers, location of Material Safety Data Sheets and use and care of any personal protective equipment necessary to handle the products safely.

Many Canadian workers are exposed to hazardous materials on the job. In the past, information about these materials has often been incomplete, inconsistent or not available at all. This means that employers and workers were often unaware of the hazards of a material in the workplace, and of the necessary handling precautions. This lack of awareness has caused serious occupational illness and injury.

WHMIS is now over 20 years old and yet many corporations are not aware of how the Canadian Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Ontario WHMIS Regulation affect them. WHMIS requires that all workers must be trained regarding the specifics of their work environment. This training must include a testing and certification process documented by the employer.

Who is covered by the legislation? If a corporation employs staff who use cleaning products, they must be trained. If there is a superintendent who maintains the pool or spa chemicals, they must be trained. Is there a general maintenance person who takes care of repairs, welding, pest control etc? What about an outside trade, who is responsible for them? All these functions could include the use of and exposure to hazardous materials. Each worker is entitled to know about the hazards to which they may be exposed. Who is responsible for the training? Under the legislation, the employer must ensure that workers are informed, products are labelled and documentation available.

To enforce the provincial WHMIS legislation, Ministry of Labour inspectors will monitor compliance with WHMIS during the course of their regular workplace health and safety inspections, or during the investigation of related complaints, accidents or work refusals. Where non-compliance is found, the inspector will enforce the WHMIS legislation by issuing an order to correct the violation. This is no different than the way in which all other occupational health and safety legislation has been enforced to date. The penalties are the same as the penalties for any other violation of the Act or its regulations, namely, a fine of up to $25,000 and/or a term of up to 12 months in jail.

Returning to the $150,000 judgement against the Toronto District School Board in 2005, the details of the investigation and summary judgement highlight the need for training and compliance.

During the investigation of the events that resulted in the death of an evening shift part-time caretaker at a school in Scarborough, the fire captain retrieved two cleaners—a sanitizer/deodorizer and a liquid toilet bowl cleaner. When mixed together, the two cleaners created a dangerous, corrosive, chlorine gas which within only a few hours killed the caretaker. The Ministry of Labour determined that the caretaker had not received proper and appropriate instruction on the products as required by the WHMIS regulations.

In pleading guilty, the school board acknowledged that they failed to ensure the caretaker was informed of:

– the contents, purpose and significance of the information on the labels for the two cleaning products;
– the contents of the material safety data sheets and their purpose and significance;
– procedures for the safe use and handling of these products; and
– procedures in case of an emergency involving these products.

As in the case with the school board, it is critical that property managers and management companies know what constitutes a hazardous material, what hazardous materials employees may be exposed to, whether employees know how to handle the materials properly, how and where to find information about the materials, what to do in an emergency, and what their responsibilities are as employers and for whom they are responsible.

Knowing the WHMIS regulations is one of the first steps in creating a safe work environment. Providing WHMIS training, which covers both the employer’s responsibilities and at the same time giving Canadian workers complete and documented information to the hazardous materials and situations to which they are exposed, ensures compliance with this important legislation.


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