July 3, 2015

Meet Mike the WHMIS Expert

As a part of our free Learning Series, on Wednesday April 15th, we hosted a webinar titled WHMIS and GHS – An Introduction to the Transition. This webinar provided attendees with a greater understanding of the new legislated transition to incorporate the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) into Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS). Our featured expert for this session was Michael Phibbs, President & CEO of Chemscape Safety Technologies. Chemscape Safety Technologies is a leader in SDS and hazardous chemical management solutions aiming to provide the most up-to-date chemical safety training.

Before you rush off to watch the webinar, we wanted to introduce Michael, provide information on his background and experience, and showcase what drives him to promote chemical safety and awareness.

Michael (Mike) Phibbs is a Certified Industrial Hygienist by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, and a Registered Occupational Hygienist by the Canadian Registration Board of Occupational Hygienists. He obtained a Master’s of Business Administration from the Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is currently the chair of the American Industrial Hygiene Association Control Banding Working Group. His varied experience and impressive knowledge have made him a great resource and he has presented for the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering, American Industrial Hygiene Association, and Enform’s Petroleum Safety Conference.

Mike and his consulting company have authored thousands of MSDSs since 1989. In 2010, Mike was trained to classify and author GHS Safety Data Sheets (SDSs; the GHS equivalent of MSDSs) in anticipation of the implementation of GHS legislation. Mike’s work also led him to being instrumental in the creation of Enform’s Controlling Chemical Hazards guideline. Mike and Chemscape developed and currently host a related online tool that uses control banding to assist in adherence to this guideline (control banding is an industrial hygiene method that is concerned with controlling, rather than measuring, hazards). This tool enables industry to complete health risk assessments on chemicals. It then produces control approaches explained in guidance documents to protect workers’ health.

Mike lives in Calgary with his family and when he isn’t helping people be safe around chemicals he enjoys skiing and fly fishing – catch him casting a line along the Bow River in Calgary or at the shores of the Old Man River in Southern Alberta.

We asked Mike some questions to learn more about him and his opinion on some relevant topics:

In your opinion what is the most important aspect of chemical safety?
Wise implementation of chemical safety information. Too often supervisors and workers have clear information but they never read it. People’s lives and health can be affected by chemicals; some of these effects will happen right away and some will happen in the future. There are short term and long term hazards with many chemicals and unless it is a recognizable chemical name the information is rarely understood. Chemicals will affect the body (liver, kidney, etc.) and the chemical doesn’t care if you read the MSDS or not. Using chemical safety knowledge to select a safer chemical or protect people from the effects is of utmost importance. If we can make this easier, it can happen, and we have instituted many new symbols to help with preventative measures.
Do you think incorporating GHS Standards into WHMIS is a positive change?
Absolutely. There is so much global trade that chemicals and corresponding SDSs are arriving from all over the world. Previously different hazard classifications on SDSs from those countries could be very different leading to significant and predictable confusion. Harmonization of classifications will cure this. The term harmonization is key; there is not complete standardization as there can still be some country to country differences, but these will be significantly decreased. I would like to point out one Canadian-specific impact that is bittersweet: the disappearance of the three year mandatory update rule. This forced suppliers to examine their products and corresponding MSDSs, and reissue on a regular basis which I believe was, and is, a very good thing. I know that suppliers must reissue MSDSs if there is any new information anyway, but the three year rule forced this to happen. In the USA some MSDSs are 20+ years old and should have been updated several times, but it often only happened with very large and sophisticated suppliers. Health and safety audit systems distorted the three year rule by assuming that if there are no MSDSs more than three years old then a good WHMIS program was in place – which is absolutely absurd. A good program means that employers have systems to ensure all chemicals in the workplace are labelled, MSDSs are available for all chemicals at that workplace, and when new chemicals are purchased the MSDSs are added to the system and conversely removed when the chemical is no longer used. However, regardless of a three year rule, supervisors and workers need to assess chemical hazards like they do any other hazards and try to reduce hazards. Workers need to understand hazards and how to work with a product safely.
What is your favourite part of being President and CEO of Chemscape?
I get excited about changing people’s thinking about chemical safety. I like to take issues and scale them so the right information is available where the chemical is located. Our product, msdsBinders, has many unique and very useable features. One of my favourite innovations we have is our health videos for safety meetings. They feature a specific health topic then provide a list of chemicals that relate chemical products to them – we have had considerable feedback that these videos have led to the substitution of chemicals with lower hazard options, and the implementation of more stringent PPE expectations. That feedback continuously motivates our team to innovate more.
What inspired you to address chemical safety online?

I have an uncommon skill set and history, technically and in business; first, as an Industrial Hygienist on a pipeline, then as an MSDS author responsible for up to 4000 chemicals. I needed to work with scalable systems to be effective. While authoring MSDSs I needed to consider customers’ needs and the regulations they had to live with. I recognized that MSDS management is not about MSDSs but rather about protecting people and sometimes reporting to management or using the data so companies can make mandatory reports. All too often health and safety programs are really just safety programs; adding health is a significant accomplishment that I wanted to help companies achieve.

We do this by creating easy to use systems that deliver both MSDSs and health topics for safety meetings directly related to chemicals in a company’s inventory. Our SmartCharts summarize exactly what prevention measures need to be in place to work with a chemical, and through our Exposure Control Plans we have helped clients look at how to protect workers in a scalable fashion and meet regulations they previously struggled to meet.

To increase education I also wanted to explore online training but there were already many systems. I was reluctant to enter this realm until I could make a significant difference. I recognized by having the SDSs, workplace labels, health lists, Emergency Response Guides, ongoing training – and with the implementation of GHS – it was time to enter this market. Our key difference is we ensure users know how to find SDSs; this is a key point that other courses have ignored as they assume that the SDSs will always be readily available.

What do you think will be the main benefit of your webinar?
The GHS system is inevitable. The hazard symbols are different and the classification behind the symbols is different. The new SDSs are long and some content is quite technical. Fortunately for workers and supervisors, there is a structure to the SDSs and supplier labels that promote understanding of what the hazards are, how to work with the chemical safely, and what to do in emergency situations. This webinar will help you understand this information and prepare for it proactively.