WHMIS 2015: A Big Deal for Small Businesses?

All organizations across the country – big and small – need to follow health and safety laws. If you are a business that supplies and distributes hazardous products that are intended for the Canadian workplace, there are several federal regulations that you need to follow.

But understandably, you’re swamped. As a small business owner, you’re constantly trying to stay on top of all your day-to-day tasks to keep operations running smoothly and financially sound. The health and safety of you, your employees and clients may take a backseat to more immediate demands. But making it a top priority can, in fact, boost your bottom line. By complying with federal, provincial and territorial regulations for hazardous products, your business can strengthen worker safety while also enhancing competitiveness to trade your products domestically and internationally.

What is WHMIS?

The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, better known as WHMIS, is Canada’s national hazard communications system for providing health and safety information on the safe use of hazardous products used in workplaces. Under WHMIS, Health Canada regulates businesses that sell or import hazardous products, while federal, provincial and territorial OSH authorities regulate employer requirements for the workplace. The key elements of WHMIS are hazard classification, cautionary labelling, safety data sheets and worker education programs. WHMIS became law in 1988 and was updated in February 2015 to incorporate the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals – or GHS. GHS provides an internationally consistent approach to classify chemicals and communicate their potential health and environmental hazards. This single system ensures uniformity for everybody who provides, supplies, and uses hazardous products.

What’s New in WHMIS 2015?

The main elements of WHMIS that you’re likely familiar with – product labels, data sheets that outline potential hazards and how to work safely with products, and worker education and training – are all still required with WHMIS 2015. . All employers must ensure that there is workplace-specific training in place that reviews the hazardous products in their workplace and safe work procedures. For suppliers and distributors, you are still obligated to:

– Communicate the hazard through SDS and labels;
– Update labels and SDS when new data becomes available; and
– Provide confidential business information to a health professional in the event of an emergency

What has changed for suppliers and distributors are the obligations to retain the appropriate level of documentation, names and criteria for the way hazards are classified, how labels look, and what is required on the safety data sheet.

What Small Business Owners Need To Do

While WHMIS 2015 includes new harmonized criteria and requirements, the roles and responsibilities for suppliers, employers and workers have not dramatically changed. As a comprehensive hazard communications standard, the reach of WHMIS casts a wide net onto small to medium sized organizations that range from family-run shops to small-scale plants, stretching across a variety of sectors from construction to manufacturing to hospitality services. CCOHS and Health Canada strongly encourage small businesses to take advantage of the available free training and general information resources to be better informed of the new requirements to identify, label and communicate the hazards associated with their products. This will ensure that your workers and organizations that may also use your products operate in an environment that is safe.

When Should Training Start on the New WHMIS?

WHMIS 2015 came into force in February 2015 and has already started for some Canadian businesses that supply hazardous products and the workplaces that handle, use and store them. Until May 31, 2017, suppliers are able to comply with either WHMIS 1988 or WHMIS 2015. It is important to note that the transition period does not permit using a combination of the two systems for labels and safety data sheets. As a result, businesses may already be receiving both WHMIS 1988 and WHMIS 2015 products into the workplace. So, workers actually need to be educated and trained now before they use a hazardous product with a WHMIS 2015 label and safety data sheet.

And keep in mind that as long as there are products with WHMIS 1988 labels and safety data sheets in your workplace, workers will also need to understand WHMIS 1988. This means that any new workers will need training on both systems. For more information on the requirements for businesses during the transition period, please visit the Health Canada website: www.whmis.gc.ca

What do Employees need Training On?

You will need to provide education on WHMIS 2015 – how it works, the various hazard classes, and what the information found on labels and safety data sheets mean. They will also need site- and job-specific training such as procedures for storage, handling, emergencies, and spills. You can do this training in-house or hire a consultant – it is always your choice.

WHMIS training doesn’t expire unless there are changes to your WHMIS program. You do need, however, to review your WHMIS program annually or when hazards change.

Where to go for More Information and Help

Smaller organizations often don’t have dedicated departments, time or resources to provide health and safety training or informational updates to their workers. As a result, you can feel burdened with yet another thing to add to an ever-expanding to-do list.

To help, Health Canada and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety have developed free resources to support smaller enterprises during the WHMIS transition period, including courses, webinars, and fact sheets. By tapping into these available resources, businesses of any size can help ensure their employees are trained and have the information they need to work safely with and around hazardous products.

For the latest information about the status of new and existing WHMIS requirements in your province or territory, visit the national WHMIS website: www.whmis.org.

Check out the resources:

WHMIS for Workers:


WHMIS after GHS, An Introduction:


For additional information and resources on WHMIS 2015, please visit our website