Ontario prevention system shifts risk-of-injury emphasis from “young workers” to “new workers”

You know research has had an impact when it changes the language used to frame an issue, and the findings become so ubiquitous they are considered part of the “common wisdom”—so much so that citing the source is no longer considered necessary.

The Institute for Work & Health (IWH)’s research on injury rates among new workers has had this effect, most notably in Ontario’s occupational health and safety (OHS) system. The province’s prevention partners, from the Ministry of Labour to the health and safety associations (HSAs), no longer refer to the issue of “young worker safety” but to the larger issue of “young and new worker safety” or, simply, “new worker safety.”

And they often quote the related statistic—that new workers are three times more likely to be injured during their first month on the job than at any other time—without mentioning its source. (And that’s fine with us!)

The research behind the shift

As early as 2003, IWH reported the findings of scientist Dr. Curtis Breslin that all workers, regardless of age, were at a much greater risk of injury in the first month on the job. In 2006, he and fellow scientist Dr. Peter Smith authored a paper published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine evocatively titled “Trial by fire.” The paper outlined their findings about the significantly increased risk of injuries among people new to their job.

In 2013, Breslin and Smith authored another paper published in OEM that updated this research and looked at injury rates over a 10-year period. Breslin and Smith found that injury risk among new workers remained consistently high, with workers in their first month on the job having three times the risk of a lost-time injury as workers with over a year’s job experience.

Over the years, these findings made people in Ontario’s OHS prevention system sit up and take notice. The Ministry of Labour, health and safety associations and other system stakeholders started to include new workers in their injury prevention initiatives originally aimed only at young workers.

MOL changes focus from “young” to “new”

For example, in July 2004, the Ontario Ministry of Labour announced it was beefing up its enforcement strategy through its High Risk Firms initiative. In its backgrounder to the announcement, it mentioned that one of its aims was to increase workplace awareness of injury risk, with a special emphasis on young workers. New workers were not mentioned.

Four years later, that had changed. In 2008, the Ministry introduced a new enforcement strategy called Safe at Work Ontario. The strategy included “blitzing” Ontario workplaces to eliminate health and safety hazards, concentrating on workplaces with workers aged 24 and under as well as those employing workers of any age who are new to their jobs.

Wayne Del’Orme, currently director of the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL)’s Mining Health and Safety Review, confirms that IWH’s research was behind the change. We changed the wording [from ‘young’ to ‘new and young’] because of that [IWH] study, he says. From 2006 to 2010, I was the provincial coordinator of the Industrial Program within the MOL’s Occupational Health and Safety Branch, and it was early in that period that the change was made.

Del’Orme made sure the first blitz under the Safe at Work Ontario enforcement strategy included the concept of “newness.” As he explains, When we saw that new workers were at the same risk as young workers, we asked, ‘Okay, what is the commonality among these groups?’ We believed it was time on the job rather than age, which meant we needed to rethink our previous understanding about the cause of increased injury rates among young people.

MOL continues to emphasize “newness”

This focus on young and new workers is even stronger today. Indeed, the emphasis now tends to be on the “new” rather than the “young.” In December 2015, the Ministry reported on the results of its annual “New and Young Workers Blitz.”

It also began with oft-quoted statistic, based on IWH research, that new and young workers in Ontario are three times more likely to be injured during their first month on the job than at any other time. It then defined the scope of the blitz as the industrial sector, with a focus on young workers aged 14 to 24 and new workers of any age who were on the job for less than six months or assigned to a new job.

In some cases, young workers are being subsumed in the category of new workers. For example, in October 2014, Ontario’s Chief Prevention Officer issued an e-message titled “New Workers Advisory,” in which the term “young worker” was not used at all. It read:

Workers who are new to a job are three times more likely to be injured during their first month on the job than more experienced workers. [There’s that statistic again.]

A new worker can be anyone who is starting a first job or is on the job for less than six months.  A new worker can also be an individual who is assigned a new job, has recently moved to Ontario, or who is returning to the workforce after a long absence.

In fact, any worker that is placed in a new environment or given new responsibilities should be given appropriate training and support.  If they are not trained, they can be at risk for safety hazards.

Ontario prevention partners also emphasize newness

Many other partners in Ontario’s OHS system have also adopted a focus on new worker injury risk. For example, Workplace Safety North, one of the province’s health and safety associations, issued a press release in March 2013 asking its clients to pay special attention to safety training for new workers. It, too, did not mention young workers, although it suggested them when talking about first jobs such as babysitting and delivering newspapers. This release quoted IWH research findings extensively:

While Ontario claim rates for work injury and illness have been declining, workers who are new on the job still remain at much higher risk for injury than experienced workers. This finding underscores the importance of workplaces paying special attention when any worker is new in the job.

A study last year by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) found that there is a persistent higher injury risk for new workers. The higher risk among new workers was noticeable over a ten-year period, suggesting that workplaces need to do more to ensure new workers get the training and supervision they need.

In another example, an e-bulletin dated November 6, 2015 from the Toronto-based Workers Health and Safety Centre (WHSC) announced the recipients of its 2015 post-secondary student scholarships, and gave a nod to IWH research:

According to research, age has little to do with the excess risk faced by this group of workers. Rather their vulnerability relates to issues ranging from their newness to work and lack of experience, to lack of training and unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.

The e-bulletin goes on to say a key aspect of the scholarship initiative is to shed light on the misguided notion that young workers are intrinsically careless and help shift the discussion to prevention.

Today, government bodies, OHS professional groups and OHS and human resources publications generally accept it as common knowledge that it’s new workers, which includes young workers new to the workforce or new to a job, who are at increased risk of work injury. The Institute’s research played a key role in shaping that shared wisdom. As Wayne Del’Orme comments, This was landmark research, and it did have an impact.

Also see: USW in Canada broadens young worker training 

Publication date: 

December 2015

Type of impact: 

Type 2: Evidence of research informing decision-making