Workers Health & Safety Centre

WHMIS training standard much needed, recent worker death demonstrates

The death of a worker exposed to toxic fumes emitted from a mixture of chemical cleaning products is a tragic reminder of why enforceable WHMIS training standards are needed now.
A manager of a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in a Boston suburb died in November, 2019 after inhaling toxic fumes emitted from a mixture of cleaners that contained acid and bleach. Many other workers and patrons were also taken to hospital for treatment. Just 12 days later a similar incident occurred in a restaurant in a nearby town sending three workers to hospital.  
As reported in the Boston Globe, Joel Tickner, co-director of the globally-recognized University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI), believes the tragedy was avoidable. He explained the incident represents a failure of training, a failure of communication, and a failure of the company to buy “the safest chemistry to protect their workers.”

WHMIS obligations

Here in Ontario, employers have significant legal obligations, including training, to ensure workers (and supervisors) can identify hazardous substances, including many cleaning agents, and understand the risk to health, safety precautions and emergency responses. Ensuring compliance with the various aspects of the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, commonly known as WHMIS, is an important step towards meeting these obligations. Critical to this is mandatory WHMIS training.
Unfortunately, not all training is created equal. Workers in all sectors relate experiences of poor and forgettable WHMIS training. Recent studies and surveys conducted by the Centre for Research Expertise in Occupational Disease (CREOD) reported WHMIS to be among the worst training workers receive. This despite the fact Ontario law also requires WHMIS training must result in workers being able to use the information to protect their health and safety [s. 7(3), WHMIS Reg.].

Raising the bar on WHMIS

Reflecting on the preventable death south of the border and those asked to perform work for which they’ve not been adequately trained, Dave Killham, WHSC executive director, observes, “Reliance on videos or passive online information instead of quality training just doesn’t cut it. Neither does reliance on a performance-based standard that is not enforced, or to be candid, easily enforceable. With workers lives in the balance the training bar must be raised.”
Delegates to the Ontario Federation of Labour 2019 convention last November and Unifor Ontario Council in December agree. Both unanimously passed resolutions calling for more prescriptive mandatory training standards in Ontario – standards like Ontario’s proven Working at Heights standard
“As a first step, how about implementing a mandatory, enforceable training standard for WHMIS – one that sets out an effective standard detailing what content will be covered, how it will be delivered and by whom?” asks Killham. “After all, exposures to hazardous materials is the single biggest killer of workers in this province,” he reasons.

WHSC can help

Meantime, Workers Health and Safety Centre (WHSC) continues to offer Globally-Harmonized WHMIS training in communities and workplaces across the province. This highly interactive program applies adult learning principles to ensure learning is engaging, relevant and achieved.
In addition to general WHMIS training, employers must provide workplace-specific training to workers, including product-specific procedures for the safe use, storage, handling and disposal and what to do in an emergency. WHSC can help with this too. 
Unsure about your WHMIS or other training obligations or want to know more about the hazardous potential of cleaning products?

Call:   1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak with a training services representative, or
Related resources:
WHSC WHMIS resources
TURI Substitution Resources
Environmental Working Group Guide to Healthy Cleaning
Occupational disease site offers insights on exposure and prevention
Regulation an important driver of workplace chemical substitution, study finds
Lung disease in nurses linked to disinfectant use at work