2018 was a big year for awareness about hazardous chemicals in the workplace. In fact the Oxford Word of the Year was “Toxic” and 3 of the top 4 words associated with toxic were chemical, substance and gas.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) saw the completion of their 10 year hazardous substance registration process under REACH and immediately began using the resulting data to enhance their hazardous substance awareness campaign through their website, webinars, articles and infographics.
The Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) declared that sound management of chemicals and waste was essential to achieving all 17 goals of the world’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Canada saw the full transition to the upgraded Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS 2015) in some provinces. We also saw the tragic impact of hazardous workplace chemicals, both from short-term exposure in the Fernie, British Columbia incident where 3 workers died due to exposure to ammonia in the municipal arena, to the plight of retired workers from the General Electric Peterborough, Ontario plant and the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario victims described in the “Rubber Town” articles.
It is safe to say that people are more aware of hazardous chemicals in the workplace than ever before.
Is Eliminating Hazardous Chemical Use the Answer?
No! Many hazardous chemicals are critical to our daily lives. They are critical for clean water, sterile hospital environments, affordable housing, and so much more. The answer is not to eliminate hazardous chemicals but to use them responsibly and with awareness and protection, as necessary.
How Do We Increase Awareness?
What if purchasers had to review the hazards of products along with the benefits, before the products were purchased? Those who run a business know that the key to marketing is to tell customers about the benefits of their products or services. It’s no surprise that chemical suppliers market their products the same way. Customers purchase chemical products based on benefits (ie: faster drying glue, stain-proof carpet, stronger disinfectant).
How Can the Average Purchaser Assess the Hazards of Chemicals?
While the average purchaser is not a chemist or an occupational hygienist, they do understand simple hazard language like “May cause cancer”. This is exactly how the new WHMIS 2015 or the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, also known as UN GHS, requires workplace chemical products to be labeled by suppliers. This ingenious system provides a framework to allow the average person to gain some idea about the hazards of the products they are purchasing/using. In 2016, Canada joined 72 countries throughout the world, including the US, to aligned with UN GHS through WHMIS 2015.
How Can UN GHS or WHMIS 2015 Help?
The ingenious part of WHMIS 2015 or UN GHS is that it puts the potentially infinite number of chemical products into finite “groups” for consideration. First there are 3 groups of hazards; physical, health and environmental. Next each of the 3 groups are broken into 3 degrees of hazard by “Signal Words”; Danger, Warning and hazards with no signal word. The average person will understand that a chemical with a “Danger” signal word is more hazardous than one with a “Warning” signal word. Third, the groups of hazards are broken down further using specific “Hazard Statements” to better define the type of hazard, such as “May cause cancer” or “Highly flammable liquid and vapour”. Finally, to visually re-enforce the hazard, a symbol is used. See Figure 1 & 2 to understand how Signal Words, Hazard Statements and Symbols work together.
There are 79 Hazard Statements in UN GHS Rev 6 and suppliers are required to follow a very specific set of guidelines in order to classify their products. For the purchaser or user, this means that we are comparing hazards that are rated against clearly defined standards and we can therefore judge the relative hazards of products.
For example, consider 2 spill kit absorbents. Absorbent A contains a significant amount of respirable silica and is labeled with the “Health” symbol, the signal word “Danger” and the following hazard statements: “May cause cancer”, “Causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure”. This is because inhaling fine particles of silica is associated with Silicosis, which increases risk of lung cancer. Absorbent B does not contain silica, uses low hazard ingredients and is labeled with no symbol, the signal word “Warning” and the hazard statement “Causes eye irritation”. By comparing the benefits of these two products, as well as the hazards, the buyer can now evaluate the risks associated with use of the products to employees and make an informed choice about which to purchase and what control measures are required during use.
Is There Really the Will To Put the Effort Into Responsible Chemicals Management?
Yes there is! We have spoken with over a hundred organizations in many different sectors about responsible chemicals management. We have found that there is a shyness about openly discussing the lack of knowledge about chemicals in the workplace because people fear that they should be doing more. In truth, for organizations with more than 50 chemicals, responsibly managing them is virtually impossible without digital technology. There is just too much information for our minds to organize. With digital technology and WHMIS 2015 or UN GHS, hazardous substances can be managed in groups, making risk assessments and chemical-specific training much more manageable. Figure 3 shows how Rillea’s web app, SDS RiskAssist™, identifies and prioritizes the hazards associated with the 239 products in this collection. Clicking on the symbols gives the user specific information about the products and hazards.
Figure 3. Grouping hazards according to WHMIS 2015 or UN GHS symbols makes responsible management much easier.
With some training about WHMIS 2015 and the use of SDS RiskAssist™ to quickly “group” their chemical inventories, we have witnessed clients reduce their chemical inventories and hazards by 20 to 30% within their first 6 months. And they now have specific content for employee training and a sustainable process by which to set, measure and assess their chemicals management goals year after year. Now that’s a great return on investment!
In 2019, resolve to responsibly manage your organizations chemicals by working with companies who can digitize your WHMIS 2015 or UN GHS safety data sheets and who have expert knowledge in how to leverage the ingenious UN GHS framework. This will help you quickly gain control over your chemical hazards, reduce your inventory and chemical-handling costs while improving occupational health and employee knowledge/retention of chemical handling information.