Immigrant worker safety: IWH develops OHS information tool for newcomers

Institute for Work & Health researchers are helping fill a gap in the occupational health and safety system: the need for information tailored to immigrant workers, delivered to them through the services they regularly access at the community level.

Immigrant workers are a vital and important part of Canada’s labour market. One in five Canadian workers is an immigrant and, as of this year, immigrants are expected to account for all of Canada’s net labour force growth.

Yet, immigrant workers are among Canada’s most vulnerable when it comes to their health and safety on the job. This was raised in the report of the Expert Advisory Panel on Occupational Health and Safety, which submitted its recommendations to the Ontario Minister of Labour in December 2010.

The Panel was appointed last year to examine Ontario’s occupational health and safety landscape. It came in the wake of a horrific workplace accident on December 24, 2009, when four migrant construction workers died and a fifth was seriously injured after their swing-stage platform snapped 13 stories above the ground.

Based in part on Institute for Work & Health (IWH) research findings, the Panel acknowledged that immigrant workers are vulnerable for a number of reasons: not knowing their legal rights, working in jobs without experience or hazard-specific training, and being unlikely to raise health and safety issues for fear of losing their jobs. It therefore recommended that Ontario’s health and safety system “develop information products in multiple languages and formats for distribution through various media and organizations” to raise awareness of OHS among immigrants and other vulnerable workers.

IWH Scientist Dr. Agnieszka Kosny and her team are already on the job, developing information and training modules for immigrant workers on their rights and responsibilities under employment, occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation legislation. And they’re working with settlement agencies to get the information out.

Immigrants face barriers post-injury

The need for this type of training and information became evident to Kosny in a study she completed last year looking at the experiences of immigrants who had been injured on the job. Over the course of the study, Kosny and her team interviewed 28 recent immigrants with work-related injuries, as well as service providers who work with immigrant workers.

Although Kosny noted that the experiences of new immigrants after a work injury are not always all that different than those of Canadian-born workers, some problems are magnified because of their status as newcomers. Here’s what she found:

  • Many of the workers in the study tended to have jobs that did not mirror the ones they left behind in terms of experience and qualifications required (see related story "Overqualified immigrants at risk of poorer mental health"). Thus, they ended up doing jobs they had never done before, involving manual, heavy and repetitive work, and with little knowledge of the hazards, tools or machinery associated with the work.
  • Because of “settlement-related pressures” (i.e. the need to finance their new life in Canada and/or to send money to family in their country of origin), along with an acute awareness of their poor position in the labour market after months of looking for work in their field, keeping a job took on a more pressing quality.
  • Despite this, injured immigrant workers did tend to tell an employer or health-care provider, even if informally, of their work-related injury. However, these parties sometimes failed to report the injury in a timely or appropriate manner, as required by law. Because new immigrant workers knew little about how the system is supposed to operate, they were unlikely to complain.
  • Immigrant workers’ poor English skills made navigating the workers’ compensation system problematic. Understanding forms, decisions and requirements was difficult, leading to misunderstandings with employers, health-care providers and adjudicators. This led to frustration all around, and undermined the credibility of newcomers who were sometimes viewed as “not cooperating.”

Among the many important findings, Kosny noted that injured immigrant workers had little knowledge about their rights and responsibilities. Even though many workers took language-training classes, attended job-search workshops or received materials about coming to Canada, workers consistently reported never receiving any information about employment standards, their OHS rights or the workers’ compensation system during the settlement process, says Kosny.

Therefore, Kosny recommends – as does the Expert Advisory Panel – that this information be included in material received by people preparing to come to Canada or shortly after they arrive, as well as in job-search and language-training classes offered through settlement agencies. She included this recommendation in her April 2011 study report, which has been submitted to the journal Ethnicity & Health for publication.

Settlement agency pilots information tool

Kosny and her team are now following up on this recommendation. To begin, they conducted a national scan for safety resources currently available online to recent immigrants. They found 224 resources. Most of these offered information on employment standards; few focused on workers’ compensation.

In a March 2011 report summarizing the results of this scan, the research team included a number of case studies highlighting unique ways to communicate information on employment standards, OHS and workers’ compensation to newcomers. For example, the Progressive Intercultural Community Services of British Columbia offers a “Cultural Navigator,” which provides in-person advice to clients about workers’ compensation matters such as filing a claim and returning to work. It has also set up a dedicated WorkSafeBC resource room, where clients can access a computerwith embedded WorkSafeBC links, as well as a DVD-based library of Work- SafeBC publications: www.pics.bc.ca/site/news/1286908195.html.

The IWH team has now developed two training and information modules for newcomers to Ontario: one on workplace health and safety and one on workers’ compensation. They are piloting the modules at a settlement agency in Toronto, with the aim of integrating the modules into existing job-search programs. The tool is expected to be ready in June.

The hope is to eventually make these modules available to other organizations, says Kosny. I’d like to see this information included in all job-search workshops offered through settlement agencies in Ontario.

For more information on the scan of health and safety resources available for immigrants, go to: www.iwh.on.ca/plenaries/2011.

Source: At Work, Issue 64, Spring 2011: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto