WHMIS, Canada's right-to-know hazard communication standard, came into effect on October 31, 1988.
For some time, a need had been identified for a nationally consistent workplace hazardous materials information system for chemicals intended for professional use. Existing provincial, territorial and federal occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation could control hazardous materials in the workplace but federal legislation was necessary to establish a national information standard, particularly for imported materials.
In 1982 the Canadian Association of Administrators of Labour Legislation accepted the report of a federal / provincial task force which studied the feasibility of labelling hazardous substances in the workplace. The WHMIS project was then started by Labour Canada using a tripartite Steering Committee with representatives from organized labour, industry and the federal government. Representatives of provincial governments and other industry groups also participated as ex-officio members.
The project involved unprecedented tripartite consultation on complex technical and social issues. Though requiring time and patience, it proved rewarding both for the subject at hand for the establishment of the process. The Steering Committee's main task was to recommend a national system to provide information on hazardous materials used in the workplace, recognizing the interests of workers, employers, suppliers and regulators.
A cost / benefit study was undertaken to estimate the socio-economic impact of the proposed system. In addition to special tabulations from Worker's Compensation Boards (WCB) and the Dominion Fire Commissioner, a survey was launched to obtain information on the potential public and private sector costs as well as on benefits from WHMIS. During the fall of 1984, 1,964 companies, representing a wide range of industries and company sizes, were contacted to seek the point of views of management and workers. Since the worker education program was viewed as the most important element, two scenarios were identified.
The first scenario assumed that all elements of the standard would apply to all economic sectors. The second assumed the same application of WHMIS except that the complete worker education program, as defined by the Steering Committee, would apply only to those sectors that use a significant amount of hazardous materials.
Under the first scenario, total discounted costs over a forty year period would exceed benefits by $932 million ($2.269 vs. $1,337 million). However, if the second scenario were to be implemented, the benefits derived by the system would, over the long term, offset its private and public sector discounted costs by $591 million.
The process of tripartite consultation on complex technical and social issues had few experienced practitioners. At the time, participants were not aware of any equivalent in Canada nor abroad. Understandably, it was time-consuming, as all participants needed to reach common understanding and mutual trust that would permit movement towards solutions.
The many and inter-related issues included economic, trade, technical and philosophical considerations as well as the rights of both labour and management. Often viewpoints appeared to be diametrically opposed, especially when attitudes had become entrenched over time. To progress, it was necessary for all participants to listen carefully to, and clearly understand, other points of view. Understanding was often complicated by the semantics of different participants.
To illustrate the magnitude of the task and the multitude of issues, the participants had to resolve conflicts of rights and obligations and significant differences in other technical approaches and philosophical attitudes. For example, the "right- to-know" had to be balanced against the "right to adequately protect intellectual property". Also, the rights to be protected and work safety and refuse unsafe work had to be balanced against the right of the employer to manage and also fulfill his obligation to protect workers and exercise his duty to warn. It is, therefore, understandable that the consensus arrived at, by necessity, included checks and balances to accommodate these conflicting positions.
While the process certainly consumed significant resources and effort, it also produced an unprecedented and worthwhile result in occupational health and safety. Participants agreed that the time had been well spent for the resulting consensus was accepted by government, industry and labour and meets the project objective. The time invested was anticipated to pay large dividends during implementation which was expected to be facilitated by the commitment to the process by the participants and their constituent groups.
On March 14, 1989, several key participants of the WHMIS initiative met to take a retrospective look at the WHMIS consultative process. The objective of their report was to summarize from that meeting the perceived conditions for the successful use of the consensus approach, to provide some recommendations for modifying, if necessary, this technique based on the WHMIS experience and to identify the types of projects for which the consensus process is suited.