All about the Globally Harmonized System

Globally Harmonized System, or GHS, is a new international system of Classification and labelling of Chemicals. The goal of the GHS is to standardize and harmonize the classification and labelling of chemicals using a logical and comprehensive approach internationally. The GHS will define health, physical and, environmental hazards of chemicals with a goal of harmonizing a standard set of rules for classifying hazards by using a common format and content for labels and safety data sheets (SDS) to be adopted and used worldwide.

Many countries currently have established their own systems in place for classifying hazardous chemicals. The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) is Canada’s national hazard communication standard. The key elements of WHMIS are labelling of containers of WHMIS controlled products, the provision of material safety data sheets (MSDSs) and worker education and training programs.

Whether it is WHMIS or any other hazard communication system that is similar in content and approach, there are significant differences in these systems; enough to require multiple classifications, labels and safety data sheets for the same product when sold in different countries. This ultimately leads to inconsistency of hazardous information being transmitted to the end user of the product which may potentially lead to injury.

Canada has been an active participant in the development of the GHS.  Since 2004, Canada has been conducting multi-stakeholder consultations on issues related to GHS implementation in WHMIS.  These "technical" consultations with key stakeholders including representatives of chemical suppliers, employers, organized labour, and federal, provincial and territorial governments have essentially been completed.  A number of legislative/regulatory activities must be undertaken to facilitate the transition to GHS in WHMIS.  These include: completion of an economic analysis, development of final recommendations, decision making, drafting of amendments to legislation and regulations, transition and phasing in implementation. All of these activities will impact the date of final GHS implementation.  At this time, Health Canada is not in a position to specify an exact date as to when the GHS will be fully implemented.

The GHS was developed by various governments including Canada, United States of America, Australia, United Kingdom, China and Japan. International organizations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), which studied the tasks required to achieve harmonization also provided support in the development of the GHS. A coordinating group for the harmonization of chemical classification systems was created under the Inter-organization Program for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC), and they were given the responsibility of coordinating and managing the development of the GHS system.

When the IOMC completed developing the GHS system, it was presented to the UN GHS Sub-Committee, which formally adopted its first session in December 2002 and was fully endorsed in July 2003. Since then, several international bodies have proposed various implementation goals. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and the Inter-governmental Forum for Chemical Safety (IFCS) have encouraged countries to implement the GHS system as soon as possible with an ultimate goal of 2008. However, countries and sectors within the country can choose to implement the GHS system at varying times depending on their local circumstances. Canada signed the 1992 agreement in Rio and has supported the GHS initiative from its inception and is committed to its implementation.

The GHS system is meant to apply to more than just workplaces. The GHS system will apply to consumer chemicals during transport. The two major elements that will make up the GHS system are the classification of the hazards of chemicals according to the GHS rules, and communication of the hazards and precautionary information using safety data sheets (SDS) and labels. The GHS system is expected to enhance the protection of human health and the environment and provide a recognized framework to develop regulations for those countries without existing systems. It is also expected to facilitate international trade in chemicals whose hazards have been identified on an international basis and reduce the need for testing and evaluating against multiple classification systems.

The overall benefits of the GHS system will be fewer chemical incidents, lower health care costs  and improved protection to workers’ and the publics’ health and safety through greater awareness of the hazards associated with chemical use.

Anthony Di Gianni is an OHS Consultant with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP. Contact Anthony at [email protected]. This article is reprinted with permission from Gowlings OHSLaw Report, January 2009. Visit for other articles from the Gowlings professionals.