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Why a Global Standard for Chemical Hazards?

Sunday, 19 Oct 2014

Your Material Data Safety Sheets will soon have a new look.


[Published in The Roughneck At the United Nations, a team of hazard communications experts has been hard at work on a new international standard.

It may seem unlikely that a United Nations group will impact Canadian rigs, but in fact, Canadian rig crews will soon get familiar with this group’s work, the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals.

“It’s also commonly known as GHS,” says Kelli Tonge, CAODC’s Manager of Safety and Training Services. Tonge has been following the international conversation around GHS. 

“GHS will change how rig workers are trained to handle chemicals. It’s going to change Material Data Safety Sheets. And it’s going to change their WHMIS training.”

Countries currently use different systems for classifying and labelling chemical products. When a Canadian rig worker transfers to another country, their uniquely Canadian training –WHMIS – isn’t an easy fit with other systems of labelling. The lack of a standard is costly for businesses and confusing for workers. The goal of GHS is to define and classify the hazards of chemical products. Rules, content and symbols will be the same worldwide. Mark Perrson, a rig manager with Ensign International Energy Services, believes a globally harmonized system makes sense. He was recently stationed in Gabon (on the west coast of Central Africa).“They have no standards there,” he says, “so we go by our own company rules and procedures. For Perrson, working in different countries means relying mainly on MSDSs for product hazard information.

“We have worked with products from England, France, Australia … they all used different tags, so I made sure our sheets were up to date.”

There’s another reason why Perrson’s focus on MSDSs is valuable. On the rigs, chemicals arrive in little bags. The tags are sometimes small or hard to read. But labels are important for a rig manager, particularly when dealing with fuels and compressed gases. In Perrson’s opinion, GHS implementation is an opportunity to limit confusion. As an example, he cites, “With fire extinguishers, there is sometimes confusion since Australia has colour coding while Canada uses tags.”

GHS 101

GHS has two major elements: 1. classification of the hazards of pure chemicals and mixtures of chemicals; and 2. Safety Data Sheets and labels to communicate hazards and precautionary information.

WHMIS users will notice GHS has new hazard classes, such as explosives, combustibles, dusts and simple asphyxiates. One new GHS class is a combination of two current WHMIS classes, teratogenicity/embryo toxicity and reproductive toxicity. Under GHS, this class is simply “reproductive toxicity.”

Canada will adopt all major GHS health and physical hazard classes.

(GHS does not recognize bio hazardous materials, or WHMIS Class D3. Canada will likely retain this category.)

Tonge notes that GHS will be particularly useful for rigs because the system offers guidance on classifying chemical mixtures. GHS will help ease the problem of classifying mud when it goes into the wellbore as one substance, mixes with other substances during operations and comes out of the hole as something entirely different. Says Tonge, “Under our current system, this transformation of the chemical is a challenge. Because GHS has guidance on dealing with mixtures, workers will have better information about hazards and precautions.” For suppliers to meet GHS requirements, they will need to change labelling practices. WHMIS symbols will be replaced with pictograms, accompanied by “Warning” or “Danger." Also, the hatched border used in WHMIS labelling will no longer be used.

GHS will replace the WHMIS Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) with Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), but it’s more than a name change. Where an MSDS has nine sections, an SDS will have 16.

Curtis Friesen, General Manager of HSE Global Risk Management for Ensign Energy Services, has been working through the implementation of GHS. He believes the new format will make it easier for workers. “These are great new requirements that will be really helpful for an employee.”

“There will be hazard and precautionary notes added,” says Friesen. “For example, if a chemical requires grounding and bonding or non-sparking tools, it very clearly tells you on the label and on the data sheet.

The Switch to GHS

Health Canada is tasked with updating WHMIS-related laws and aims to have these updates completed by June 2015. Suppliers may then begin to use and following the requirements for new labels and SDSs. This is also when employers will be expected to have updated their WHMIS training programs.

Friesen offers the following heads-up for employees: “Workers will have to pay attention [through the transition] because some chemicals might start to come in with WHMIS, some with GHS or maybe both.”

Switching to GHS might be a challenge for people comfortable with WHMIS. In the long run, however, the streamlined classification and labelling, will help industries do a better job protecting workers and the environment.

Says Tonge, “It’s important to be aware of regulation changes. Simply put, a proactive industry is safer and more efficient than a reactive one.”

This is a good time to review inventory and minimize unnecessary chemicals in the workplace. “In a sense, this change is a good refresh,” Friesen says, “And hopefully, it raises the level of knowledge of chemical safety.”

Get More Information

Details about program implementation are further outlined in The Hitch, “Get Ready for GHS.”

Access resources through these organizations:

www.enform.ca (From the Enform site, you can download Health Canada’s GHS publication)

www.ccohs.ca(The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) offers publications, courses, posters and more)

www.hc-sc.gc.ca (Sign up for Health Canada’s email news service to stay current with this implementation)