Chemical classification goes global

Norm Keith
I recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas. No, not to gamble or carouse, but to take a course with the American Society of Safety Engineers entitled Global Environment, Health and Safety Management. Through the course, I gleaned a number of details on recent international environmental health and safety management trends.

The interesting thing about many occupational health and safety global trends is that they touch Canada very directly. Canadian health, safety and environment professionals need to be aware of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), the Global Reporting Initiative and the development of a global occupational health and safety management system, also known as ISO 45001, from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). 

Chemical labelling

GHS applies to hazardous materials in the workplace. Although GHS has moved glacially slow, it is now set to apply in Canada. The primary reason it took so long was that there needed to be agreement between the American and Canadian regulators to co-ordinate the implementation of GHS because of the integrated nature of the North American economic zone.

The implementation of GHS is an important aspect of the Canada-United States Regulatory Cooperation Council, established by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama. The intent was to align classification and labelling requirements through the use of consistent categories, labels and material safety data sheets (MSDS) throughout North America and around the world. The Harper government recently announced that new regulations to implement GHS in Canada have been finalized.

The benefits of GHS is estimated to be a $400 million increase in productivity and decreased health and safety costs over the next 20 years. Canadian industry is also expected to start seeing yearly net benefits of $82 million within four years, said the government. Other jurisdictions that have embraced GHS include, but are not limited to, the European Union, Australia, China, Japan and South Korea.  

Global management system

Another global trend is the exciting, new and long overdue development of an international occupational health and safety management system, an initiative of ISO.

Most health, safety and environmental professionals are familiar with ISO 14000 and 14001; the environmental standards under the ISO. There has finally been buy in from many North American and international governments and organizations on the need for an ISO standard for OHS management systems.

The American Society of Safety Engineers is taking the lead role in the development and co-ordination of the ISO 45001 standard. Canada has a “mirror committee” that provides insights on the development of the standard. Committee representatives were present at a recent meeting to discuss the draft of the international occupational health and safety standard in Trinidad in January.

The importance of this new international standard cannot be overstated. It takes a risk based approach to health and safety, similar to the approach taken in the European Union, rather than a compliance based approach, based on single requirements, such as rules under the U.S. federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the OHS Code in Alberta. The risk assessment approach is less prescriptive and more performance based but consistent in requiring highly organized management systems to identify, assess, evaluate and mitigate risks in the workplace.

The advantage of an international occupational health and safety management system is obvious for organizations that are large, growing or international. It helps to have a framework for the OHS management system that can be used across the organization in many different countries and local jurisdictions.

An international ISO standard also performs a valuable basis for establishing the defence of due diligence. Although a management system will not in and of itself be a complete defence to charges under any OHS legislation or regulations, it will go a long way to establishing a company’s legal compliance.

It is important to note that legal compliance, updating and auditing will be part of the international ISO 45001. Therefore, companies should initially conduct a legal compliance audit to ensure local legal requirements are met.


The third international health and safety trend is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) on corporate social responsibility (CSR). As a non-legally binding initiative, the GRI came from the Netherlands and has grown into an international phenomenon. The GRI is a voluntary reporting standard that provides a framework for international organizations to have a level playing field on corporate social responsibility or, as it often is referred to in the U.S., sustainability. In 2014, 80 per cent of the largest 250 companies in the world had signed up to use the GRI. In the same year, 95 per cent of publicly traded companies on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index had participated, to varying degrees, in the GRI.

But many Canadian companies that are considering expanding globally, or want to have global acceptability for foreign investors, are not considering registering as a GRI reporter. The GRI has levels of engagement that require different levels of CSR reporting. The GRI is itself evolving to a more standards based approach by measuring environmental compliance, social engagement, safety and labour standards accountability. It is now being considered as an entry point for corporations committed to sustainability and CSR around the world.

Norm Keith, an OHS lawyer and consultant, is a partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin in Toronto. He can be reached at (416) 868-7824 or, or visit for more information.