The importance of the WHMIS in the workplace

The internet is familiar with explosion videos, but the Tianjin port explosions from 2015 were different. Its bright pillar of flame towered over buildings, shattered windows, and ended 173 lives. By the end, the port was a flat circle of soot under bent car frames and melted Seacans. It did not take long for people to start asking, “How is this possible?”

The best guess of experts is the fire department’s hoses hit chemicals that turned explosive when mixed with water. The attending firefighters did not know what was burning as no reports on the contents were readily available to them. It is also known that the Port did not follow precautions in storing chemicals in restricted volume or separated from each other. Overall, the port did not appreciate the seriousness of chemical hazards.

The port’s problems are not isolated. The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System—better known as WHMIS 2015—is considered a dry topic and is often ignored because of that. After all, WHMIS is ultimately a filing system for chemical information, which is not exciting. However, those engineer’s reports on chemicals—known as Safety Data Sheets (SDS)—provide critical information, such as proper storage and cross-contamination risks. The port did not store their chemicals as an SDS would recommend. It is not clear if their staff were ever trained in WHMIS, but they certainly were not applying that training if they were.

Canadian workplaces share many of the root issues that caused the Tianjin Port explosion. Many worksites—perhaps even your own—have a “WHMIS cabinet” that contains all their hazardous chemicals. Offices store their cleaning chemicals together under a kitchen or bathroom sink. These storage mistakes are small versions of the Tianjin port. Also, WorksafeBC regulation requires a worksite to inform their local fire department of stored chemicals, yet many sites either do not know that or otherwise do not do it. This same lack of communication with local fire departments was a major cause of the Tianjin Port explosion. In small ways, BC worksites repeat the actions that built the Tianjin Port explosion every day.

The root of each of these issues is WHMIS education and training. WHMIS courses are often delivered through pre-recorded videos. These videos are free but they are also impersonal, highly generalized, and entirely forgettable to workers. When Universal Health & Safety designed their WHMIS 2015 course, they focused on the role of WHMIS in daily work. They grounded the system in examples from the workplace and removed unneeded trivia. The response from students was overwhelmingly positive and we saw change in perspective on safety’s driest topic.

Occupational disease accounts for 40-60% of the workplace-related fatalities in BC. In addition, most catastrophic events—like the Tianjin port—are related in someway to workplaces not taking WHMIS seriously. Universal Health & Safety found that the point of WHMIS education is not to just describe the system. Rather, the point is to motivate and empower students to manage the chemical risks they face. For UHS, the measure of successful WHMIS course is whether a student reads their Safety Data Sheets when they start work the next day.