The Only Constant with GHS is Change

Written on: June 1, 2014 by Mike Moffatt

After months of waiting, Canada is moving again on implementing the Globally Harmonized System of Classification & Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). It is still months away from having a final version of the Controlled Products Regulations in place, but much closer than it was even two months ago. There were significant references to GHS in both the federal budget, which was released on February 11, and the budget Implementation Act, which was introduced for first reading in the House of Commons on March 28.
The February 11 budget document is available for download at: It contains a number of references to chemical regulations, including this section on regulatory cooperation between Canada and the U.S.:

Broad progress has been made in implementing commitments from the Canada-U.S. 2011 Regulatory Cooperation Council Action Plan, with initiatives addressing four main regulated sectors: agriculture and food, transportation, health and personal care products, and the environment. Examples of progress include alignment of a number of vehicle safety standards, joint reviews of pesticides and veterinary drugs, use of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals and the development of a common electronic submission gateway for pharmaceutical products.

I recently asked a senior government official what the future may hold for GHS-based regulatory cooperation between Canada and the U.S. He indicated that there is room for “tighter” cooperation in the future, which may occur when both countries modify their respective GHS regulations as new revisions of the GHS guide, known as the Purple Book, are released. These may include, but are not limited to, joint comment periods (where a company could send one set of comments in, simultaneously, to both sets of regulators) and harmonized release dates for regulations. The government official stressed that this would not mean that the regulations would be wholly harmonized as each country has unique issues that they would need to address in regulation. However, when there were differences in regulations, it would be a deliberate act because of circumstances unique to the country, not because regulators did not consult each other during the regulatory process. I am cautiously optimistic that this will mean tighter harmonization of regulations in the future and not just for safety data sheets (SDS) and workplace labels.

In Canada, the first budget document contains information on the government’s priorities for the upcoming year. The actual nuts and bolts are contained in the budget implementation act. This act, known as Bill C-31 (to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in parliament on February 11, 2014 and other measures) contains amendments to the existing Hazardous Products Act, as well as Canada’s Hazardous Materials Information Review Act, that will be necessary to fully implement GHS in Canada.

Bill C-31 can be downloaded here: It includes the following changes to the Hazardous Products Act:

Tightening the loopholes around when a product is considered “for sale.” The new rules are explicit that products “whether for consideration or not” (which includes free samples) fall under the Act.

The supplier requirements are altered to indicate that the supplier is required to provide product labels and SDS for products that are used, handled or stored in Canadian workplaces.

Fines for non-compliance are increased to a maximum of CAD$5,000,000 and/or imprisonment of not more than two years.

The changes to the Hazardous Materials Information Review Act in Bill C-31 are needed in order to implement GHS, but do not appear to place any new burdens on suppliers. The Canadian government estimates that the adoption of GHS will save nearly CAD$400 million through “increased productivity and decreased health and safety costs.”

Expect Bill C-31 to pass before Parliament’s summer break, which starts on June 21. There are still additional steps that need to be taken before GHS is implemented in Canada. The provincial governments as well as the three Canadian territories need to amend their labor laws, as most workplaces fall under provincial, not federal, jurisdiction. The final version of the Controlled Products Regulations needs to be released by Health Canada, as well.

I know many in the industry are worried that Canada will try to impose the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA) June 2015 full compliance date for GHS. Such fears are unwarranted. The Canadian government has committed to implementing GHS by June 1, 2015, but this would be the start, not the end, of the compliance window. Expect at least a two-year phase in period, which would mean that your Canadian workplace labels and SDS will not need to be compliant until 2017 at the earliest.

GHS will not be a “set it and forget it” process, as there will be more regulatory changes after 2017. Expect both U.S. and Canadian regulations to be updated, as the United Nations issues new revisions every 24 months. There is also a strong possibility that both the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Health Canada will eventually alter consumer product regulations to a GHS-based system. The only constant with the Globally Harmonized System is change.


What is the GHS?

The GHS is an acronym for The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals.

The GHS is a system for standardizing and harmonizing the classification and labeling of chemicals. It is a logical and comprehensive approach to:

  • Defining health, physical and environmental hazards of chemicals
  • Creating classification processes that use available data on chemicals for comparison with the defined hazard criteria
  • Communicating hazard information, as well as protective measures, on labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS)

Many countries already have regulatory systems in place for these types of requirements. These systems may be similar in content and approach, but their differences are significant enough to require multiple classifications, labels and safety data sheets for the same product when marketed in different countries, or even in the same country when parts of the life cycle are covered by different regulatory authorities. This leads to inconsistent protection for those potentially exposed to the chemicals, as well as creating extensive regulatory burdens on companies producing chemicals. For example, in the United States (U.S.) there are requirements for classification and labelling of chemicals for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The GHS itself is not a regulation or a standard. The GHS Document (referred to as “The Purple Book”) establishes agreed hazard classification and communication provisions with explanatory information on how to apply the system. The elements in the GHS supply a mechanism to meet the basic requirement of any hazard communication system, which is to decide if the chemical product produced and/or supplied is hazardous and to prepare a label and/or Safety Data Sheet as appropriate. Regulatory authorities in countries adopting the GHS will thus take the agreed criteria and provisions, and implement them through their own regulatory process and procedures rather than simply incorporating the text of the GHS into their national requirements. The GHS Document thus provides countries with the regulatory building blocks to develop or modify existing national programs that address classification of hazards and transmittal of information about those hazards and associated protective measures. This helps to ensure the safe use of chemicals as they move through the product life cycle from “cradle to grave.”