WHMIS: Read the labels and follow the SDS

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By Paul Fooks

Special to Ottawa Construction News

In my career, there has been a leap in education regarding the potential injuries causes by chemicals in the workplace. Workers were plagued with chronic injuries, debilitation or potentially death – alas, shorter life spans indicated a telltale marker of workers exposed to harmful chemicals.

I think the biggest improvement during more than three decades of WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) training, is the shift to ensure the instruction is geared to individual workers. Specifically, we now focus on the persons using products, and how they can stay safe using them.

Conversely, 30 years ago my first training was long, convoluted, and included explanations of how to pass a bill in Parliament and how the government is there to protect you. There was a series of questions, but the focus was on the regulations and laws.

Then it felt like the training was intended to shift the responsibility to workers, not that the employers are legally required and responsible to provide protection. This focus on keeping big brother and the capitalistic machine running seemed wrong to me. But I knew I needed to protect myself, so I wouldn’t be injured or die.

Things have changed, thankfully. The new WHMIS training is focused on workers’ protection by encouraging them to develop two skills. The first skill is reading, and the second skill is to ask questions.

It will become very evident that there is a risk to your health and safety just by reading the label and reading the SDS (Safety Data sheet) before you use a product. First, you identify the risks and consult the SDS for the preventative measures which list the personnel protective equipment required and other control measure requirements.

Second, it’s time to ask questions. Where is the PPE (personal protective equipment), eye protection, face shield, apron, gloves, boots etc. are to be provided by the employer appropriate to the risk and as per the SDS.

The third requirement is to become acutely familiar with the first aid procedures for the chemical. It is too late to try and find out what to do during a first aid emergency after someone has been injured.

In some cases there are specific countermeasures required for first aid that must be available to neutralize a chemicals harmful effect. You will always need an eyewash station, and eyewash bottles to be used while moving to the eyewash station. You may require a shower as well. These first aid requirements are listed in the SDS. Employers need to be aware of these requirements to provide a safe work environment.

The fourth section to focus on is the emergency fire procedures.  Different chemicals or substances have different fire suppression requirements depending on the type of fire. Use the correct fire extinguisher associated with the type of fire. If the wrong fire extinguisher is used the fire could spread, propagate or a chemical reaction can make the fire worse.

The employer and supervisor needs to focus on the previous sections and take care to watch out for compatibility, so a chemical reaction does not occur if chemicals are mixed. Storage and handling needs to be understood so that there is not an increase in the likelihood of a risk of fire or chemical reactions.

Warnings need to be in place to keep lids tightly closed or to use a bonding wire when decanting into smaller containers.  Some chemicals have warnings against splash filling or low auto ignition temperatures or flash points.  All of these risks and procedures must be included in the training requirements for any worker that handles the chemical.

One critical procedure is many flammable chemicals must be bonded to pour them.  I remember training for our petroleum oil and lubricants (POL) lockers or POL sheds. All of the storage areas were grounded and the sheds would have a bonding copper band around the inside of the shed. As soon as you entered the shed you touched the copper grounding band.

This makes you the same potential of everything in the shed to reduce the risk of sparks.  You then got your bucket and touched the drum. Next connect the bonding wire on the drum to the bucket, hang the bucket on the spigot and fill the bucket.

The key takeaway is that safety procedures reduce but sometimes do not eliminate the risk. Acetone can ignite just by pouring it even if you follow all the procedures. You have to think about what you should be wearing, where is the nearest fire extinguisher, eye wash station or deluge shower.  Keep it simple, keep it safe, read the label and follow the SDS. This can be a life saver.

Paul Fooks is Ottawa-based Labor Tek Safety Training Inc.’s head trainer. For more information, visit www.labortek.com or phone (613) 741-1128.

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