Four roundtables, 50 voices: Moving from research evidence to action

Each year thousands of studies are published in scientific journals and presented at meetings and symposiums. The studies are generated by researchers from a wide variety of disciplines who each share a common goal: to learn more about some aspect of workplace health and safety that will ultimately improve the health of workers and contribute to overall productivity. Many findings are of potential interest to governments, policy-makers and others involved in Ontario’s occupational health and safety system. But is the research evidence actually getting into the hands of those who could use it?

It is a vital question that all applied research organizations, like our own and those who fund workplace health research in Canada, should be asking, says Dr. Cameron Mustard, president of the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). That’s why we, together with the WSIB research secretariat, decided it would be good to gather the key players around the table and ask for their experiences and opinions.

There is growing recognition that we need to maximize the reach of our research evidence, adds Jane Gibson, director of Knowledge Transfer and Exchange at IWH. We should aim to produce findings that are relevant by engaging audiences in research early and also to make sure we are communicating this knowledge productively.

The Institute and the Research Secretariat of Ontario’s Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB) organized a series of Roundtables. The four, half-day sessions, held in Toronto, were attended by more than 50 key representatives from at least a dozen organizations. These included organizations such as the Ontario Ministry of Labour, the WSIB, Ontario’s Health and Safety associations, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Ontario Labour Federation and the Business Council on Occupational Health & Safety. The intent of the Roundtables was to identify common research needs and to discuss better ways to cultivate the researcher and decision-maker relationship. These included:

  • understanding how research is produced and funded
  • looking at options for building capacity to use research evidence
  • exploring new ways for research organizations and decision-makers to interact to ensure that research is “most relevant” for users
  • identifying effective ways for researchers to communicate their results to decision-makers
  • defining roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders (such as decision-makers, policy developers, researchers and research-funding agencies).

Who produces and funds research in the area of workplace health and safety?

Participants learned that the main suppliers of workplace health and safety research in Ontario include the IWH, the Centres of Research Expertise, and health and safety-focused researchers who are often located in university environments. In Ontario, the WSIB has been the main source of funds for this research. Other sources of funding include agencies such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Institut de récherché Robert-Sauvé en santé et en securité du travail (IRSST) in Quebec, and workers’ compensation boards in other Canadian jurisdictions.

How to increase the uptake of research evidence

Clinicians who treat workplace illness and injury have a history of using research evidence in their practice. The uptake of research findings is less common among other decision-makers, such as employers and policy makers. Roundtable participants identified a variety of barriers that currently exist (see Barriers to accessing research). Three broad areas for change emerged from the Roundtable discussions:

1. Renewing the strategic framework for research. Through the WSIB’s Research Advisory Council (RAC) research grants program, research priorities have been articulated. These priorities, which were identified through consultation with the stakeholders, fall within five broad categories:

  • occupational disease, injury and health services research
  • prevention, workplace design and intervention research
  • fair compensation and Ontario workers’ compensation system research
  • organizational, management and policy research
  • research on the transfer of scientific knowledge to the workplace

Since knowledge of the RAC’s research priorities is not widespread, Roundtable participants agreed that opportunities need to be found to make the framework better known and to engage stakeholders in discussions of priorities. Discussions would focus on what kind of research is needed, who will conduct it, how links to workplaces are to be made, and how knowledge transfer and exchange activities would be structured. An inventory of all on-going policy and program priorities and research initiatives could be developed to help guide researchers. This process would allow for “horizon scanning” – the systematic identification of potentially researchable issues.

The advantage of working collaboratively on research priorities and questions is that researchers and decision-makers can interact before the research gets underway, says IWH Chief Scientist Dr. Tony Culyer. For decision-makers, this may lead to better understanding of what questions are researchable. For researchers, this interaction should help make their work more relevant and timely for those who will ultimately put it to practical use. Not all questions require new primary research, Culyer adds. Indeed, some advice can be given immediately based on the extensive knowledge already in people’s heads.

2. Build relationships to improve information exchange. Employers who took part in the Roundtables emphasized the need to build trust, saying it was important to them that workplace health research is done in a fair and unbiased way. Research-users also wanted to know that research organizations were in touch with one another so that the same information would be shared locally and nationally.

3. Help research-users/decision-makers understand research findings. Researchers and decision-makers lack a common language and both need to develop shared understandings. Research results are often expressed as findings. Expressing these results as recommendations would be more meaningful to decision-makers.

An idea put forward at the Roundtables was the creation of a quick response service for users, where researchers and other experts in workplace health would be available to do quick searches of the literature and/or answer specific questions from employer groups and labour organizations. In addition, the IWH currently has a systematic review program, in which researchers look at existing primary research and summarize the body of evidence for specific research questions and identify potential directions for new research.

Research organizations might also develop and share a directory of experts in the workplace health field who could be consulted when either data or advice are needed. Roundtable participants also agreed that a good research program ought to offer:

  • a quick response drawing on what is in the researchers’ heads
  • a slightly less quick response through focused literature searches/references
  • systematic reviews of existing literature (6-12 months)
  • primary research (6 months - 5 years)

What are the next steps for implementing ideas from the Roundtables?

Now that the Roundtable discussions are complete, representatives from the IWH and the WSIB Research Secretariat will meet to determine how to integrate these ideas into their existing agendas. They will also discuss developing new initiatives.

Source: At Work, Issue 44, Spring 2006: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto