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Employers’ Obligations To Be Informed About Chemical Health Hazards

Written by: Lisa Hallsworth

Published on: 29 October 2017

As with all the health hazards in the workplace, employers are responsible for protecting employees from the health hazards associated with chemicals. They rely on safety data sheets (SDSs) from suppliers to give the best information about the chemicals being purchased. The supplier’s safety data sheets are a great place to start but can employers stop there?

What Are Suppliers’ Obligation To Inform Purchasers?

Under the Canadian Hazardous Products Act, no supplier, at the time of sale, shall provide a safety data sheet that “is false, misleading or likely to create an erroneous impression, with respect to the information that is required to be included in a label or safety data sheet for that hazardous product”. However, some of the safety data sheet health classifications for WHMIS 2015 depend on chemical-specific health studies, which are continually being conducted. This means that health classifications can change from the time an employer purchases a product from the supplier.

Isn’t the Supplier Required to Let the Employer Know About Updates?

According to section 5.12 of the Canadian Hazardous Products Regulation, if “significant new data” becomes available, the supplier can sell the chemical for up to 90 days without an updated SDS but they must let the purchaser know in writing about the new data.  If the supplier continues to sell the product after the 90 day period, they are required to provide the updated SDS to purchasers at the point of sale.

However, Ontario Regulation 860 (WHMIS) puts a heavy onus on employers to supply employees with updated information as it becomes available. Section 17.(2) of O. Reg 860 states “An employer shall update a supplier safety data sheet obtained under subsection (1) as soon as practicable after significant new data about the product is provided by the supplier or otherwise becomes available to the employer.”

O. Reg. 860, 17.(3) further states thatAn employer may provide a safety data sheet in a different format from that of the supplier safety data sheet for the hazardous product or containing additional hazard information if,

(a) the safety data sheet provided by the employer, subject to subsection 40 (6) of the Act, contains no less content than the supplier safety data sheet; and

(b) the supplier safety data sheet is available at the workplace and the employer-provided safety data sheet indicates that fact.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour further emphasizes the employer’s responsibility in a publication entitled WHMIS and the Employer. In the section under Worker Education, the publication states,

To understand what hazard information the employer is or ought to be aware of the following are considered to be sources of occupational health and safety information that the employer should know about:

  • Publications and on-line information from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety;
  • Publications from the employer’s industry or trade association, or from labour organization(s) representing workers at the workplace; and
  • Publications and on-line information from the Ministry of Labour.

There may be sources in addition to those listed above that the employer may wish to consult.

So, while the supplier has some obligation under the law to provide accurate information at the point of sale, once the chemical has been purchased, the employer owns the bulk of the responsibility to remain informed of changes and ensure their employees are informed and protected.

How Should An Employer Proceed When Purchasing Chemicals?

Consider the examples shown in Figures 1 & 2 below. The hazard statements for the same substance from two different suppliers are summarized, as well as the exposure limits for the chemical according to Ontario Regulation 833. Note that the SDSs were sourced at the same time and were the latest available on the suppliers’ website.

Dichloromethane Summary - Supplier 1
Dichloromethane Summary - Supplier 2

Figure 1Figure 2

The date for supplier 1’s SDS is more recent than that for supplier 2 and identifies that the chemical “May Cause Cancer”. Consulting the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC) website, Dichloromethane was indeed classified as a 2A carcinogen in 2016 and according to GHS, should be assigned the “May Cause Cancer” hazard statement.

In this case, even the warning that the chemical is “Suspected of causing cancer” together with the 50 ppm time-weighted average exposure limit should be enough to cause the employer to conduct a risk assessment on how to manage this chemical. However, one can see how an older document may have no reference to cancer if the identification was only recently made.

When selecting a chemical for purchase, employers should seek suppliers who provide up-to-date SDSs so they can accurately see the health hazards.  Knowledgeable and reliable suppliers are partners in maintaining healthy workplaces and can save an employer a lot of time and money.  If up-to-date SDSs are not available, employers can consult websites such as IARC for information on carcinogens, and regulations such as Ontario Regulation 833 & 490, for the chemical ingredients listed in Section 3 of the SDS.

How Should Employers Use SDS Health Information To Protect Their Employees?

From a health perspective, there are 4 main concerns for chemicals; skin/eyes damage, skin absorption, ingestion or inhalation. The first 3 health hazards can be addressed with proper selection of eye/skin protection and proper hygiene. Inhalation, however, presents a bigger challenge.

Exposure limits across Canada and the US for dichloromethane vary between 25 and 75 PPM. The Centres for Disease Control & Prevention lists the odor threshold for dichloromethane at 250 PPM and indicates that the odor is “pleasant”. As a result, odor is a poor warning property for exposure to dichloromethane.

CAREX Canada indicates that 25,000 workers are exposed to dichloromethane in the workplace in Canada. There is limited evidence that the chemical causes cancer in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in animals. Given this information, an employer may consider eliminating the use of dichloromethane.  If this is not an option, then the employer must take extra steps to understand how to limit employee inhalation exposure to dichloromethane. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive’s COSHH e-Tool can be used to roughly assess the circumstances for use of this chemical in the employer’s specific situation. In addition, industrial hygiene consulting services are available from organizations such as the Workplace Safety & Prevention Services. Engineering controls (use in a fumehood), administrative controls (use only in limited quantities) or personal protective equipment (PPE) (use only with a respirator), may be required.

Once the employer has completed this risk assessment into how to properly handle chemicals, a method to record and share this valuable information is required. Rillea Technologies’ SDS RiskAssist web application is designed to support the identification of health hazards, risk assessment activities and to maintain and share the resulting information with employees throughout the organization. Contact us for a demo or more information.



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SDS RiskAssist is brought to you by award-winning Rillea Technologies, an Ontario-based company that uses the power of technology to give employers control and understanding over the otherwise pervasive and worrisome use of chemicals. SDS RiskAssist ensures workers know why chemicals are being used, what their benefits and hazards are and how to use them safely! RilleaTech’s 10-step chemical management process guides employer action to mitigate their risk and ensure workers have the right knowledge to prevent harm. Workers can access this knowledge via mobile or desktop devices as often as needed, from anywhere in the world. SDS RiskAssist is the winner of 2018 and 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards by Canadian Occupational Safety Magazine; the 2019 Innovation Guelph Startup of the Year Award; the 2019 Quinte Business Achievement Award (Trailblazer category) and The Ottawa Network’s 2020 Bootstrap Award (SaaS category). Rillea Technologies supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, working with our clients to take action for a sustainable planet.

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