What we heard: Integrated strategy for the protection of Canadian workers from exposure to chemicals

A summary of feedback from the consultation: An integrated strategy for the protection of Canadian workers from exposure to chemicals

Executive summary

On July 11, 2019, Health Canada (HC) launched a 50-day online consultation, which invited interested stakeholders and the general public to provide comments on the Government of Canada’s proposed actions and opportunities to expand, strengthen and integrate existing approaches, and on how to best protect Canadian workers from exposure to chemicals of concern

The online consultation provided Canadians with an opportunity to review two proposed actions as a first step towards the development of an integrated strategy in the context of Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) modernization. These are:

Activities within the first proposed action included:

Activities within the second proposed action included: 

Comments were received from 28 individual stakeholders and organizations representing specific groups. Many stakeholders welcomed HC’s proposed efforts to enhance the protection of Canadian workers from exposure to chemicals through expanded activities and partnerships with other federal programs and provincial and territorial (PT) governments. Stakeholders encouraged HC to:


WHMIS is Canada's national system for classifying the hazards of workplace chemicals and communicating hazard and safety information to employers and workers. WHMIS is implemented through federal [HC and Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)] and PT legislation.

HC administers the HPA and the Hazardous Materials Information Review Act (HMIRA), which outline supplier requirements for communicating hazards associated with products used, handled, or stored in Canadian workplaces. FPT-level occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation covers workplace labelling, access to safety data sheets, mitigation of workplace hazards, and worker education and training programs; specific requirements may vary among provinces and territories. All jurisdictions, however, require internal responsibility systems based on employee-employer partnerships to help ensure a safe and healthy workplace.

The CMP is a Government of Canada initiative aimed at reducing the risks posed by chemicals to Canadians and their environment. Under the authority of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999), the CMP assesses chemicals used in Canada and takes action on chemicals found to be harmful to human health and/or the environment.

Under the CMP, HC administers robust processes and approaches to help protect Canadians from exposure to chemicals of concern, including gathering information on chemicals, communicating broadly about which chemicals are priorities for risk assessment, conducting research, monitoring and surveillance, risk assessment and risk management strategies, and the development and implementation of risk management tools.

While CEPA 1999 is broad in scope, occupational exposure has not been included in risk assessments or risk management carried out under the CMP. This approach differs from the practices of most other international chemicals management agencies, where occupational exposure is often the driver for risk management. The WHMIS system currently operates in parallel with CMP, but integration could be improved between the two programs.

The Government of Canada is exploring approaches to modernize chemicals management in Canada. HC recognizes that enhancing the protection of Canadians from exposure to chemicals in the workplace is a key area of interest for stakeholders, and is exploring options to better integrate the WHMIS program and the CMP. HC has been working with FPT representatives from the Canadian Association of Administrators of Labour Legislation, Occupational Safety and Health Committee (CAALL-OSH) to identify potential opportunities to enhance the protection of workers using the information, tools, and technical expertise of the CMP. In the Fall of 2018, as part of this initiative, FPT jurisdictional members of the Committee of WHMIS Coordinators (CWC) were surveyed to identify potential opportunities to leverage the expertise and data accumulated through the CMP to benefit worker health and safety. These opportunities were further discussed with FPT CWC representatives in a face-to-face workshop in the Winter of 2019.

Overview of consultation

An online consultation was launched on July 11, 2019, and held until August 30, 2019, to seek input from Canadians on proposed actions and opportunities to expand, strengthen and integrate existing approaches, and on how to best protect Canadian workers from exposure to chemicals of concern. 

Feedback received through this consultation process will help define the scope for subsequent consultations on how the Government of Canada could modernize chemicals management in Canada to enhance the protection of Canadians from exposure to chemicals in the workplace in a more comprehensive and integrated manner.

Who responded

The consultation generated 28 sets of comments from Canadians. The comments represented the views of industry (suppliers and employers), occupational health and safety consultants, organized labour, non-governmental organizations, a federal government department, a federal departmental corporation, and individual members of the public.

What we heard about the integrated strategy

Many stakeholders welcomed HC’s proposed efforts to enhance the protection of Canadian workers from exposure to chemicals through expanded activities and partnerships with other federal programs and PT governments. Some felt that existing systems are working well, while others felt that the proposal does not go far enough.

HC was encouraged to:

Stakeholders were supportive of the guiding principles, in particular the need to avoid duplication. Some stakeholders identified areas that were missing from the proposal, for example, informed substitution, control banding, and exposure banding Footnote 1.

Proposal 1:  Establish an FPT committee to better coordinate chemicals management for the protection of workers

Several stakeholders stated that they required information from the gap analysis before they could support the proposal to establish an FPT committee and the activities it could undertake. The consultation document noted that the Committee on Drinking Water (CDW) could be a model for FPT coordination; however, some stakeholders pointed out that the proposed integrated strategy is far broader and more complex than the establishment of drinking water guidelines but, in general, it was acknowledged that this model was a good place to start. HC was encouraged to make use of existing committees rather than establishing a new committee, and to involve all OHS stakeholder groups, not just FPT regulators. It was suggested that any future FPT committee be transparent and efficient, and that it should be recognized that harmonization and consistent risk mitigation may not be fully realized.  

Possible activity:  Prioritization

It was proposed that the HC-OHS Regulator Committee build on the existing CMP approach for the Identification of Risk Assessment Priorities (IRAP) and the CDW model to develop a framework to prioritize chemicals for further action based on potential concerns related to use, handling or storage of chemicals in Canadian workplaces. Many stakeholders indicated that they felt that prioritization would be a valuable activity for the Committee. However, it was often suggested that the existing IRAP process be used rather than establishing a new priority setting process. It was suggested that substance nominations could come to IRAP from the FPT OHS regulators or any other stakeholder.  Stakeholders said that the priority setting process should be science-based, and concerns were raised related to availability of data (for example, statistics on workplace disease). 

Possible activity:  OEL development

It was proposed that the HC-OHS Regulator Committee develop OEL or equivalent guidelines that may be implemented by OHS regulators or used as a guidance tool for employers in their risk management. There were mixed views on OEL development as a Committee activity, and whether there was value in adding to the list of OELs currently available. Some stakeholders identified the need for mandatory, not voluntary, outcomes and enforceable actions. Some stakeholders identified concerns with how OELs are currently established in Canada and were very supportive of the development of new OELs and efforts to harmonize OELs, while others felt that current processes are working. It was often stated that that OEL development should remain an FPT responsibility and that FPTs could work together to harmonize OELs, and a new process or Committee is not needed. Some stakeholders suggested that alternatives to OELs be considered, for example, exposure banding or control banding, which may be easier for small to medium size employers to implement.

If OEL development were to become a Committee activity, stakeholders encouraged international cooperation and alignment through initiatives such as the Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC), and with organizations such as the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), the United States (U.S.) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Some stakeholders recommended that experts from all stakeholder groups be included in the OEL development process.

Some stakeholders suggested that the OEL development process should consider technical and socio-economic considerations, while others supported the development of health-based values. There was support for expanding the number of substances with OELs rather than developing “made in Canada” OELs for substances that already have an established OEL. Some stakeholders suggested that OELs should be aligned to the most protective value, not just within Canada, but internationally.

Possible activity:  Research and monitoring

It was proposed that a mechanism be put in place through the HC-OHS Regulator Committee whereby FPT OHS regulators would have the opportunity to identify priorities for HC research and monitoring projects and provide a venue to identify partnerships for that work. There was general support for increasing HC research and monitoring related to workplace exposures; however, some stakeholders indicated that a Committee is not needed to cooperate and collaborate. One stakeholder suggested that the Committee should include PT Department of Health representatives and another suggested that partnerships for research and monitoring projects should not be limited to government.  HC was encouraged to collaborate nationally and internationally on research and monitoring initiatives, and to include all stakeholders in discussions regarding priorities.

Possible activity:  Risk assessment and risk management

It was proposed that the HC-OHS Regulator Committee would put forward priorities for risk assessment, and that HC could expand risk assessments to include occupational exposure where warranted (for both existing substances and new substances). As stated in the proposal, it was anticipated that risk management would usually fall under the purview of FPT OHS regulators and employers. Stakeholders had mixed views on expanding risk assessments to consider risks in the workplace and provided a variety of considerations for both risk assessment and risk management. Some stakeholders felt that risk assessments already qualitatively identify occupational exposures and that is sufficient for FPT OHS regulators and OHS professionals to follow-up on, if needed.  Comments received include:  

On the other hand, one stakeholder felt that given the broad language used in section 64 of CEPA 1999, and in light of the precautionary principle, that HC must, by law, consider occupational exposure in assessing the potential risks to human health of existing and new substances under Part 5 of the Act, and was disappointed that the proposal lacked mandatory consideration of occupational exposures. It was felt that consideration of occupational exposures would ensure that the government can take appropriate risk management measures under CEPA 1999 when occupational exposure to a particular substance constitutes or may constitute a danger to human health. It was also felt that this would ensure more uniform worker protection across Canada, reduce the burden on employers, and allow the risks from occupational exposure to toxic chemicals from consumer products to be addressed. Other stakeholders who were supportive of the proposal made comments, such as:

As with the other proposed activities, HC was encouraged to include all stakeholders in the risk assessment and risk management process, and to collaborate internationally.

Proposal 2:  Integrate the federal management of the WHMIS program under CMP

Some stakeholders expressed concern that integration of the federal management of the WHMIS program under the CMP would create confusion regarding which department is responsible for the program and which Act/regulations would legally prevail. It was suggested that HC use the “Best Placed Act” approach. One stakeholder stated that the success of both programs must be maintained and not undermined by the proposed integrated strategy. Stakeholders who supported an integrated approach felt that it would reduce confusion and enhance uniformity in chemicals management. It was felt that the WHMIS program has meaningful participation of all stakeholders, including worker representatives, and that worker participation would also need to be part of CMP if the two programs were integrated.

Possible activity:  Strengthen science-based hazard classifications of chemicals

It was proposed that HC could strengthen science-based hazard classifications of chemicals used frequently by Canadian workers or that represent a significant hazard to workers. Many stakeholders encouraged HC to remain harmonized with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). Some stakeholders were not supportive of HC developing hazard classifications for specific substances because of potential confusion, while others supported the proposal stating a need for a more strategic and targeted approach to data collection and chemical hazard classification. A few stakeholders suggested that the resulting classifications should be mandatory. It was suggested that HC leverage work done across Canada [for example, by Commission des normes, de l'équité de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST)] and internationally [for example, at the United Nations, and the United Kingdom Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Essentials], and involve stakeholders in the process. One stakeholder stated that the classifications must be scientifically accurate, agreed upon by impacted stakeholders, and have a balanced peer review prior to publication.

Possible activity:  Increase supplier, employer and worker awareness of the dangers associated with the occupational use of hazardous chemicals

It was proposed that HC develop materials in order to enhance awareness of the potential dangers posed by hazardous chemicals. Most stakeholders were supportive of raising awareness. Some stakeholders identified the need to accompany increased awareness initiatives with increased enforcement, particularly of small to medium sized employers, and possibly regulatory change to remove the WHMIS exclusions (i.e., some product types, such as consumer products or cosmetics, are currently excluded from the HPA and, thus, WHMIS labelling and SDS requirements). HC was encouraged to leverage existing material, to collaborate with organizations like the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) and the FPTs to identify specific needs, and to involve all stakeholders in the process of developing and reviewing awareness materials.   Several stakeholders identified specific needs for increased awareness for example, with respect to the use of consumer products in the workplace and in small to medium sized businesses.

Possible activity:  Increase compliance and enforcement under the HPA

It was proposed that HC strengthen its approach to WHMIS compliance and enforcement to target products of high use in the workplace or high-risk products, sectors, product classes, or chemical ingredients (for example, carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxicants and respiratory sensitizers). Stakeholders had mixed views on this proposed activity. Some stakeholders requested information to support that a gap exists and called upon HC to use the existing regulatory framework. Other stakeholders encouraged HC to further develop or broaden WHMIS compliance to include exposure control and occupational disease prevention, and to develop compliance guidance materials.

Some stakeholders who were supportive of this proposed activity suggested that the focus of compliance and enforcement should be on employers, while others felt the focus should be on suppliers. Several stakeholders suggested that compliance and enforcement efforts should be directed toward small to medium entities. It was suggested that hazard classes, rather than individual substances, be integrated into compliance and enforcement activities, and that hazard communication products should be verified based on the communication of “hazard”, not “risk”.  

Additional feedback

A number of stakeholders identified concerns about WHMIS excluded products, in particular consumer products and pest control products, and the implications of these products being used in the workplace. One stakeholder indicated that they did not believe that the integrated strategy should be used to resolve concerns about workplace use of WHMIS excluded products while other stakeholders encouraged HC to consider excluded products in possible activities such as OEL development, risk assessment, and risk management, strengthening science-based hazard classifications, and increasing awareness.


The Government of Canada would like to thank everyone who provided comments on proposed actions and opportunities to expand, strengthen and integrate existing approaches, and on how to best protect Canadian workers from chemicals of concern. The comments received provide diverse perspectives and valuable advice, insight and guidance related to all of the proposed activities. All comments will be taken into consideration and will help inform activities related to the protection of Canadian workers from chemicals of concern as part of CMP modernization. The Government will continue to consult and inform stakeholders as progress is made in determining the Government’s role in the possible development of an integrated strategy to protect Canadian workers from chemicals.


Footnote 1

Control banding and exposure banding are techniques used to guide the assessment and management of workplace risks. Control banding is a technique that determines a control measure (for example, dilution ventilation, engineering controls, containment, etc.) based on a range or “band” of hazards and exposures. Occupational exposure banding is a process intended to quickly and accurately assign chemicals into specific categories (bands), which correspond to a range of exposure concentrations designed to protect worker health. (National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/default.html))

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