06 September 2012

Woefully Horrid Method of Insuring Safety (WHMIS)

Health and safety are important, but WHMIS certification (at least, my experience with it) is a joke. I first learned about WHMIS in Grade 9 or 10, as part of a mandatory “workplace skills” course. We learned all about the different hazard symbols, material safety data sheets, the rights and responsibilities of workers, and ended up with a certificate at the end stating that we were all WHMIS certified.

The certificate itself was a piece of paper with my name and a congratulatory heading - printed on standard paper in black and white, without any security features or unique identifier - laughably easy to falsify.

In the following years, I jumped through the same WHMIS certification hoops when I got my first part-time job at a grocery store; when I started each of my subsequent summer jobs; two or three times in University courses; and again, this afternoon, at my new office job. Sometimes I got a certificate that was photocopied with my name stuck onto it. Sometimes I didn’t get any notice of certification.

In any case, the whole concept of certification is void when it comes to the way WHMIS is administered. Each time I ran through the paces once again, my fellow new hires (or classmates) stared, glassy-eyed, at a video or presentation until we were fed the answers, one by one. None of us wanted to be there. None of us were learning. And none of us cared, because we knew that the tortuous hour-and-a-half was a necessary bureaucratic formality. Once it was over, we could get on with real work.

I wonder if the Ministry of Labour has any systems in place to review the effectiveness of WHMIS education. If they do, I wonder what metrics they use. Because in the current system, everybody passes the test whether they’re actually competent or not. Sure, we have certain rights and responsibilities enshrined in legislation, but what effect do they have beyond adding an hour or two of mindless drivel to employee training sessions?

My proposition is this: why not have a real WHMIS certification program, much like the Boating Licence, that workers need to complete once in their adult lives. The Boating license can be completed online, allows for unlimited retries, and upon successful completion of the test you’re sent a Pleasure Craft Operator Card in the mail. If you’re stopped on the water by police, they can look at your card and verify that you’re certified.

Surely, if we can trust people to pass such a lenient test to safely operate a motorboat, the same could be done for WHMIS. Pass it once, then you’re good for life. Put the certificate number on the HR form next to your social insurance number so the employer meets its legal obligations. I’d even be happy with a 5- or 10-year renewal period - health and safety regulations do change over time, after all.

But for the love of God, don’t make me sit through another WHMIS training session so I can lose two hours of my life to get another meaningless certification for the umpteenth time.

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