5 Common WHMIS Violations in Food Businesses and How to Avoid Them

Learn how to prevent your business from committing common WHMIS violations

server holding tray with cleaning supplies
October 27, 2023

When it comes to the safety of food industry workers and consumers, there's no room for error. The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) is a vital component to ensure that employees in food businesses handle hazardous materials safely. Proper training and adherence to WHMIS regulations are critical to preventing accidents and protecting both workers and consumers.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore some of the most common WHMIS violations in food businesses and offer valuable advice on how to avoid them. We'll also discuss the importance of obtaining a WHMIS certification and how it can significantly impact your organization.

What Is WHMIS?

The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) serves as Canada's official guide for conveying the risks associated with hazardous substances in the workplace. It was established in 1988 and updated in 2015 to align with the Global Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). 

WHMIS is designed to ensure employee safety and is enforced by federal and provincial legislation. It applies to all industries and workplaces where chemicals and hazardous materials are present, including commercial kitchens and food production facilities.

Within WHMIS, information regarding dangerous materials must be communicated through three fundamental methods:

  • Labelling
  • Education and training
  • Safety Data Sheets (SDS)

Now that you have a better understanding of WHMIS, let’s look at some typical violation types and how to avoid them.

1. Lack of Proper Labelling

One of the most common WHMIS violations in food businesses is the lack of proper labelling on hazardous materials such as cleaning agents, pesticides, aerosols, acids, high-proof alcohol, compressed gas and fire-extinguishing chemicals.

Hazardous materials must be clearly labelled with the appropriate WHMIS symbols and information. Labels should include the following:

  • Product identifier: the brand name, chemical name, common name, generic name or trade name of the hazardous product.
  • Initial supplier identifier: the name, address and telephone number of either the Canadian manufacturer or the Canadian importer*.
  • Pictogram(s): hazard symbol within a red "square set on one of its points".
  • Signal word: a word used to alert the reader to a potential hazard and to indicate the severity of the hazard.
  • Hazard statement(s): standardized phrases which describe the nature of the hazard posed by a hazardous product.
  • Precautionary statement(s): standardized phrases that describe measures to be taken to minimize or prevent adverse effects resulting from exposure to a hazardous product or resulting from improper handling or storage of a hazardous product.
  • Supplemental label information: some supplemental label information is required based on the classification of the product. For example, the label for a mixture containing ingredients with unknown toxicity in amounts higher than or equal to 1% must include a statement indicating the percent of the ingredient or ingredients with unknown toxicity. Labels may also include supplementary information about precautionary actions, hazards not yet included in the GHS, physical state, or route of exposure. This information must not contradict or detract from the standardized information.

2. Failure to Communicate Hazards

Another common WHMIS violation in food businesses is failing to communicate hazards to employees effectively. Workers must be provided with access to training and SDSs, as these resources can help establish clear protocols for handling hazardous materials.

To further aid the communication of hazards, labels, signage, and storage instructions must be clearly visible in relevant areas of the workplace with hazard documentation such as SDSs stored and organized in a way that makes them easy to access.

3. Inadequate Employee Training

Improper training is a major WHMIS violation that can put your employees at risk. Without the necessary knowledge and skills, they may mishandle hazardous materials.

For instance, many substances in commercial kitchens — including cleaning agents, degreasers, and certain food additives — fall under the category of hazardous materials. 

WHMIS training equips kitchen staff with the knowledge to handle, store, and dispose of these substances in a responsible and safe manner. It also teaches participants all the procedures that must be followed in an emergency that involves a hazardous product.

In the absence of adequate training, improper handling can result in injuries, including burns, that could lead to long-term health issues or even death.

WHMIS training provides knowledge and understanding in the following areas:

  • WHMIS legislation: Understanding the legal framework and requirements of WHMIS.
  • Hazard classification: Learning how to identify and classify hazardous items.
  • Labelling: Recognizing WHMIS labels and interpreting the information they provide.
  • Safety Data Sheets: Learning how to navigate and understand SDSs.
  • Emergency procedures: Knowing how to deal with a chemical spill, exposure, or other emergencies.

Employees must be given access to comprehensive WHMIS training and obtain a WHMIS certification if possible. This investment not only keeps your staff and customers safe but also ensures compliance with regulatory requirements.

4. Poor Record-Keeping

Failure to maintain proper records related to WHMIS compliance can lead to legal issues and safety concerns. Keeping detailed records of WHMIS training, SDSs, and any incidents or accidents related to hazardous materials is critically important.

Remember, SDSs contain valuable information about hazardous materials. This information includes substance composition, potential health and safety implications, required safety precautions, and guidelines regarding storage, handling and disposal. 

Employers must also keep and maintain accurate records regarding the identity and quantity of hazardous products. All of these documents should be stored in designated folders near chemical storage locations or saved digitally on workplace intranet systems.

5. Neglecting Hazardous Material Updates

The food industry is constantly changing, with new products and ingredients being introduced regularly. Neglecting updates on hazardous materials can be a significant violation of WHMIS regulations. 

Ensure compliance by regularly checking for updates and changes in hazardous materials used in your food business. Be prepared to update labels, SDSs, and employee training accordingly.

The Legal Implications of WHMIS Violations

WHMIS legislation is imposed by the Labour Branch of Human Resources Development Canada for federal workplaces. Elsewhere, it is enforced by the relevant provincial occupational health and safety agencies.

Understanding the legal implications of WHMIS violations is essential for every food business owner and manager. Non-compliance can result in severe consequences, both for your business and your employees.

Fines and Penalties

Government authorities can impose fines and penalties on businesses that fail to comply with WHMIS regulations. These fines can vary in amount but are often substantial. 

Federal WHMIS violations can lead to fines of up to $1 million (CAD) and two years of imprisonment. Comparable penalties and prison terms may also be imposed at a provincial level, with business suspensions also a possibility.

Legal Liabilities

In the event of accidents or injuries related to WHMIS violations, your business may face legal liabilities. Preventable accidents can result in expensive lawsuits and damage your business's reputation.

Operational Disruptions

Non-compliance with WHMIS can lead to operational disruptions. Regulatory authorities may suspend your business operations until compliance is achieved.

Employee Safety

The most significant legal implication of WHMIS violations is compromised employee safety. Failing to provide proper training and safety measures puts your staff at risk of injury, illness, and death, with some possibilities including:

  • Skin irritation
  • Eye irritation
  • Burns
  • Poisoning
  • Respiratory issues

Risking employee safety is unacceptable from both a legal and ethical standpoint, especially considering that some cases can lead to long-term health complications and even death.

Customer Safety

There are similar issues to be considered from a customer perspective. For example, some WHMIS violations could result in chemical contamination of food, putting customer well-being at risk if consumed.

Creating a Culture of Safety

To avoid WHMIS violations and the associated legal consequences, you must create a culture of safety which will protect your business, your employees and your reputation. Here's how to achieve this:

Leadership by Example

As a business owner or manager, your commitment to safety sets the tone for your entire staff. Lead by example by following safety protocols and demonstrating their importance.

Regular Safety Meetings

Hold regular safety meetings to discuss WHMIS compliance and any updates to safety procedures. These meetings should allow employees to ask questions and share their concerns.

Employee Involvement

Involve your employees in the safety process. Encourage them to report any safety concerns or hazards they encounter in the workplace.

Recognition and Reward

Acknowledge and reward employees who demonstrate a commitment to safety using strategies such as incentives, bonuses, or public recognition.

Continuous Training

Safety is an ongoing process. Ensure that your employees receive regular WHMIS training and stay informed about changes in hazardous materials.

A Case Study in WHMIS Compliance

To further emphasize the importance of WHMIS compliance, let's consider a case study of a food business that successfully addressed common WHMIS violations and created a safety culture.

Case Study: ‘Fresh Eats’ Deli


Fresh Eats is a small, locally-owned deli that prides itself on using high-quality ingredients to create sandwiches and snacks. While they had a strong reputation for their food, they faced some WHMIS compliance challenges.

  • Inadequate Labelling: The deli did not have clear cleaning product labels, leading to staff confusion.
  • Communication Issues: There was a lack of communication about hazardous materials, which resulted in some employees not fully understanding the risks.
  • Training Gaps: Some employees had not received comprehensive WHMIS training, leaving them unprepared to handle hazardous materials.


Fresh Eats took several steps to address these issues:

  • Proper Labelling: They implemented a clear labelling system for all cleaning products, ensuring employees could easily identify hazardous substances.
  • Communication Improvement: The deli established regular safety meetings to discuss hazardous materials and safety procedures, ensuring that employees were well-informed.
  • Comprehensive Training: All employees, both new hires and existing staff, completed online WHMIS certification. This training equipped them with the knowledge and skills to handle hazardous materials safely.


By addressing these common WHMIS violations and fostering a culture of safety, Fresh Eats experienced several benefits:

  • Legal Compliance: They avoided potential fines and legal liabilities.
  • Employee Safety: Staff injuries related to hazardous materials significantly decreased.
  • Reputation: The deli's reputation for safety and quality was enhanced, attracting more customers.
  • Operational Efficiency: The deli's operations ran more smoothly with better training and communication.

This success story highlights the importance of WHMIS compliance and its positive impact on a food business.

The Future of WHMIS Compliance

The landscape of WHMIS compliance is continually evolving. As food businesses adapt to changing regulations and consumer expectations, several trends are shaping the future of WHMIS compliance.

Integration of Technology

The use of technology, such as online WHMIS certification, is becoming increasingly prevalent. It allows for more accessible, customizable, and cost-effective training.

Sustainable Practices

Many food businesses are also incorporating sustainable practices into their WHMIS compliance, including using eco-friendly cleaning products and reducing the environmental impact of hazardous materials.


Consumers are demanding greater transparency in all aspects of the food industry, including safety. WHMIS compliance will be about not only following regulations but also communicating these efforts to customers.

Take the Next Step

In a fast-paced food business, ensuring the safety of your employees and the products you provide to consumers is paramount. WHMIS regulations are in place to protect everyone involved, from workers handling hazardous materials to the customers who enjoy your products. You can create a safer and more compliant workplace by avoiding common WHMIS violations and investing in online WHMIS certification.

Don't wait until violations occur to take action. Start by providing comprehensive WHMIS training, keeping records up to date, and staying informed about changes in hazardous materials. Your commitment to safety will not only keep your business running smoothly but will also contribute to a safer and healthier food industry.

If you want to optimize food and chemical safety at your food establishment, look no further than the Canadian Institute of Food Safety (CIFS). Our comprehensive training programs and educational resources enable your staff to stay safe and compliant when working with food.

Sign up to receive notifications about our upcoming WHMIS training programs, and our team will reach out to you with more information as soon as it's available.

Want to find out more? Please don't hesitate to get in touch. CIFS is ready to help you navigate the complex world of food safety and workplace hazards.