WHMIS Symbols (previously referred to as WHMIS Pictograms) are a cornerstone of the WHMIS system. Symbols represent an idea that is conveyed using a picture without words. A set of standardized pictograms is used by WHMIS on product labels and data sheets to easily show the user of a hazardous product what type of hazard is present.

These hazard images convey meaning quickly and accurately for workers. Just as a STOP sign instantly and accurately conveys the message for the driver to stop, seeing a WHMIS symbol can tell a worker a lot about that hazard they need to be aware of. In our highly digital world people have become accustomed to the use of symbols, icons and images on our communication devices. When someone sees a symbol, such as a phone, they know someone is calling, a thumbs up means a 'like'. Similarly, when an employee sees a symbol, such as the Skull and Crossbones, they instantly know this product is toxic and can cause death.

As a result of the alignment of the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), the old (1988) WHMIS hazard symbols have been replaced by universally acknowledged WHMIS Pictograms. You will find pictograms on Product Supplier Labels and on Safety Data Sheets (SDSs).

Generally, WHMIS Pictograms are a simplified graphic image to identify the type of hazard of various hazardous materials. Universally recognized, these standardized images are easy to understand and the hazardous nature of the product such as explosive, corrosive, flammable, etc., can be understood quickly and the correct precautions can be taken in handling the product, reducing the workers risk in interacting with the product.

All WHMIS 2015 pictograms (previously called, WHMIS Symbols) are made of a distinctive red diamond border with the icon representing the hazard associated with a product (such as corrosive, health hazard or fire) inside the border. Together, the border and the symbol are called a WHMIS pictogram and are assigned to a specific hazard category or class. NOTE: There are some hazardous products that meet the criteria for a hazard class or category but do not require a pictogram. For complete details on these WHMIS 2015 classes visit the Government of Canada website CCOHS.

WHMIS 2015 Symbols (Pictograms) - What's Changed

  • The new WHMIS pictograms are contained within a red diamond shaped border vs the black circle borders of the WHMIS 1988 symbols. This change is more effective in making the symbol more visible as it now stands out from the red border.
  • There are no longer letter-based symbols like the 'Exclamation T' for other Toxic effects or the letter 'R' for Dangerously Reactive. These have been replaced with icons which are definitely an improvement since the letter-based images were reliant on knowledge of the English language.

Overall, the change to utilizing universally accepted symbols improves the entire WHMIS 2015 Symbol / Pictogram set.

Skull and Crossbones pictogram is used for hazardous products that can cause death or acute toxicity if inhaled, swallowed or through skin contact, even in small amounts.
The symbol of the flame indicates a potential fire hazard and includes, flammable gases, liquids, aerosols and solids; pyrophoric liquids, gasses and solids; self-heating substances and mixtures; substances and mixtures that produce flammable gases in contact with water; organic peroxides; and self-reactive substances and mixtures.
The flame over circle pictogram is used to indicate oxidizing. Fire and/or explosion risk in the presence of flammable or combustible materials. May enhance the combustion of other materials.
The Gas Cylinder symbol indicates gasses under pressure that may explode of heated, punctured or dropped. Gasses could include dissolved gas, liquefied gas, compressed gas and refrigerated liquefied gas.
The Health Hazard pictogram is used on product labels and SDSs that cause or are suspected of causing allergic reaction, respiratory sensitization, specific target organ toxicity, reproductive toxicity, carcinogenicity, aspiration hazard or germ cell mutagenicity.
The Corrosion WHMIS GHS symbol is used on products that can cause severe skin burns and eye damage. It is also used for products that can are corrosive to metals.
The Exploding Bomb pictogram is used for products at risk of explosion due to fire, shock, friction, heat or puncture. This pictogram is placed on labels of mixtures of self-reactive substances and organic peroxides.
The Exclamation Mark is used for products that may cause less serious health effects. The product may be harmful to skin, cause eye irritation, respiratory damage and/or fatal in large doses.
The Biohazardous pictogram is used only in Canada and was retained from WHMIS 1988. It indicates the product may have organisms or toxins that can cause disease in humans and animals. As an example, it is used on growths of organisms like salmonella or e.coli bacteria cultures.

Workers and WHMIS Pictograms

Pictograms convey meaning quickly and accurately and, for workers, seeing a WHMIS symbol can tell an employee a lot of important information about the hazardous material they are working with or handling.

If any products or materials are hazardous to the health and safety of people or the environment, they must adhere to the labelling standards as set forth in the 2015 WHMIS system mandated by the Canadian government.

Generally, WHMIS Pictograms use a simplified graphic image that identifies the product itself or its consequences of accidental misuse. The intent behind the pictograms themselves and that they are part of a government-mandated system, is so that workers can be shown to have been educated in the information required to handle such products with as much protection for themselves and the public as possible.

These standardized images are intended to be universally understood and quickly and easily recognized regardless of language barriers. Important information about a product that is explosive, corrosive, or flammable can be communicated quickly which increases the chances that correct precautions could be taken in handling the product. This reduces the workers risk in interacting with the product and protects the public and the environment.

WHMIS 2015 Pictogram Exceptions

There are a few important exceptions to note about how WHMIS Pictograms are used. WHMIS Pictograms are assigned according to a specific hazard category or class, however there are some hazardous products that meet the criteria for a hazard class or category but do not require a pictogram.

Also, some materials or products may belong to more than one hazard category. In this case, more than one pictogram may be shown on the label of the product.

Lastly, there are a few hazard categories that do not require a pictogram at all. The WHMIS 2015 Safety Data Sheets outline what is still required on the data sheets and/or labelling for the materials that may fall into these categories. For example, they may still require a word, hazard statement, or other required label elements.

For complete details on the WHMIS 2015 classes visit the Government of Canada website CCOHS.

Safetandcertfied.com also has a downloadable poster of the WHMIS 2015 label elements to help workers understand the new label information they are seeing in the workplace.

Looking to train your employees on WHIS 2015 standards? Check out SafeandCertified.com's certified WHMIS training program. The course provides an understanding on GHS as well as the WHMIS 2015 symbols and procedures in Canada.