WHMIS and Retail Stores: NS Labour and Advanced Education, Occupational Health and Safety

What is WHMIS?

WHMIS stands for the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System. WHMIS is a system of supplying information on chemicals used in the workplace. Three things are used to deliver this information: labels, material safety data sheets (MSDS), and worker education.

WHMIS applies wherever employees work with or in proximity to a potentially hazardous chemicals (officially called “controlled products”). An employee “works with a controlled product” if they store, handle, use or dispose of it or supervise anyone who performs these functions. Alternatively, an employee is “in proximity” to a controlled product if their health and safety could be at risk during:

  • the storage, handling, use, or disposal of the product;
  • maintenance operations; or,
  • emergencies, such as an accidental leak or spill.

Most retail stores thus have some employees who are covered by WHMIS.

This Infosheet explains the WHMIS responsibilities of retail store owners to their own employees and their customers.

But aren’t consumer products exempt from WHMIS?

A “consumer product” is a product packaged for and sold to the public and not intended for resale. A consumer product CAN also be a controlled product. The two categories are not mutually exclusively.

Consumer products are NOT totally exempt from WHMIS. Instead, they have a partial exemption, in that:

  • suppliers, including retail stores, do not have to give their customers material safety data sheets (MSDS)
  • suppliers do not have to add special WHMIS labels to their products (they may have to add safety labels required by other laws though)
  • employers using consumer products that are also controlled products do not have to obtain material safety data sheets or look for WHMIS supplier labels.

Suppliers, including retails stores, do not have to keep on hand MSDS's for consumer products.

So what does a retail store owner have to do with respect to consumer products?

Retail store owners, still have a responsibility to ensure proper workplace labelling is used and train according to WHMIS.

A workplace label for a consumer product is a label that has the name of the controlled product and information for the safe handling of the controlled product.

As for where labelling is needed, a retail store owner must:

  • replace missing or illegible labels on controlled products with either workplace labels or labels from the supplier;
  • unless specific conditions are met, attach workplace labels to containers that hold decanted controlled products (such as cleaners used by store employees), even if the original container was a consumer product and exempt from WHMIS labelling.

So what about WHMIS training of retail store employees?

There are several questions that come up when talking about WHMIS training in retail stores. The most frequent ones are discussed below.

What is WHMIS training?

WHMIS training is often divided into two groups - generic and chemical-specific. Generic training is meant for everyone who may have any exposure to a controlled product. It is designed to let people know how WHMIS works generally and at a particular store. This includes:

  • what is an MSDS and where are the MSDS’s at that store,
  • where are workplace labels needed
  • how to handle controlled products in general
  • what to do in the event of an emergency.

Chemical-specific training is meant for employees who actually work with a controlled product or may be asked to clean up a spill. It deals with the specific hazards of the products the employee may use or clean up, and how to safely perform those jobs.

The chemical-specific training may group products into classes with similar hazards and handling procedures. For instance, there is no need to train employees on the hazards of all the different brands of oil-based paint. So long as the hazards and handling procedures are similar for all the oil-based paints at the store, the training may treat them as a single group.

Who needs to be trained?

The training criteria in retail stores are the same as those in other workplaces - employees who work with or in proximity to controlled products.

As above, an employee “works with a controlled product” if they store, handle, use or dispose of it or supervise anyone who performs these functions. Alternatively, an employee is “in proximity” to a controlled product if their health and safety could be at risk during:

  • the storage, handling, use, or disposal of the product;
  • maintenance operations; or,
  • emergencies, such as an accidental leak or spill.

In a retail store, all employees would be considered to have some potential exposure to controlled products, however minimal. Thus, they all should have the generic WHMIS training.

When looking at the more detailed chemical-specific training, store owners may wish to consider exactly what various staff members are being to do with controlled products. For instance, a back office accounting clerk may have no responsibility to handle control products or clean up spills. Thus, they may not need chemical-specific training.

On the other hand, stockers or maintenance staff, who may use or at least be asked to clean up spills, may need the chemical-specific training.

How long does the training have to be?

There is no minimum time for training. The only requirement is that the employee leave the training with the necessary knowledge. The store owner must make reasonable enquiries to ensure that the training is achieving this goal.

How often do I have to retrain?

There is no set retraining period. There is however a mandatory annual review, which must be done in consultation with the Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee or Health and Safety Representative where they exist. The aim of the review to see if the WHMIS training program needs to be changed in any way.

The review must be done sooner if work conditions or hazard information changes significantly.

Does the training have to be certified by someone?

There is no WHMIS course that is “certified”by the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education. Similarly, there is no requirement for a graduation certificate or “wallet card”, although these are frequently available. The Department of Labour and Advanced Education does suggest though that store owners keep a record of WHMIS training in case it becomes important to demonstrate that such training has taken place.

Who can do WHMIS training?

The Department of Labour and Advanced Education does not offer any WHMIS courses itself. However, there are several courses, ranging from classroom to Internet based, readily available all over Nova Scotia. For a list of training known to the Department, see our Training Internet site. For a list of consultants who can do specialized WHMIS training, please see our Internet Consultants List, or call us for a paper copy.

But what about the chemical list required by the Occupational Health and Safety Act?

Section 59 of the Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to “prepare a list of all chemical substances regularly used, handled, produced or otherwise present at the workplace that may be a hazard to the health or safety of the employees or that are suspected by the employees of being such a hazard ...” This is a separate requirement from WHMIS and covers all potentially hazardous chemicals, even those exempted by WHMIS. These lists are required at retail stores that stock hazardous products on their shelves or “in the back” if these products could present a hazard to workers under reasonably foreseeable circumstances. If the products do NOT present a hazard, then no list is required.

For stores with several outlets, the list may be kept centrally at a head office or each store may keep their own. The decision is up to the workplace parties.

A list of WHMIS controlled products or a binder of WHMIS MSDS’s can form part of the list, so long as the list also includes potentially hazardous chemicals not covered by WHMIS.

How can I learn more?

To find out more about WHMIS and the safe handling of chemicals in the workplace, or to get a copy of our Consultants List, please contact:

Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education
Occupational Health & Safety Division
5151 Terminal Road, 6th Floor
PO Box 697
Halifax, Nova Scotia   B3J 2T8

Phone: (902)424-5400 or 1-800-9LABOUR (in N.S.)
Fax: (902)424-5640
Secure Enquiry Form

Single copies of related publications are available from the Occupational Health and Safety Division of the Department of Labour and Advanced Education at no charge. Some publications that may be helpful are: