Dr. Peter Smith

Senior Scientist
PhD, Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto

How do males and females differ when it comes to the relationship between working conditions and health? Institute Scientist Dr. Peter Smith thinks this is a research question very much worth asking.

Supported by a Research Chair in Gender, Work and Health from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Smith is taking an in-depth look at how sex and gender shape injury risk, the relationship between the work environment and chronic illnesses, and time off work after a work-related injury.

Smith points out that, despite the increasing number of women in the labour market, much of what we know about the relationship between working conditions and health, and the types of work considered hazardous, is male-focused. Yet men and women work in very different occupations—and even have different tasks when in the same occupation. They often have different roles outside of the labour market. And their differing biological make-up, such as differences in body size and hormone levels, can affect the relationship between work conditions and injury or other chronic conditions.

Given the equal participation of men and women in the labour market, and our potentially outdated knowledge in many areas of work and health, it is important that we better account for social and biological differences between men and women in our research, says Smith, who immigrated to Canada from Australia in 2003 while completing his master's degree on a student exchange program. An important part of my research program is to understand how sex and gender are being incorporated into work and health research, to determine if the current methods of doing so are appropriate, and to suggest or develop best-practice approaches in this area.

In addition to his focus on gender and work, Smith is engaged in research on the factors that influence the ability of older workers to stay in the labour market and return to work following a work-related injury. He is also interested in how we measure things in research, and is currently leading a project to develop a new measure to describe occupational health and safety vulnerability in the labour market. His previous research focused on occupational health and safety conditions among vulnerable workers, in particular recent immigrants, and the relationship between the psychosocial work environment and health.

Smith’s interest in work and health issues sprung from his time as a fitness instructor at a university in Australia. He noticed that staff rarely used its facilities. Staff were too busy to go to the gym, so we went out and gave about 300 staff health and fitness assessments and counselling to promote wellness, he says. I thought it was all a matter of an individual just wanting to be fit.

However, he discovered that most people wanted to be fit, but it was the context in which they worked and lived that produced many of the barriers to taking a course of action. This experience led me to think about how broader factors at the population and workplace levels affect individual health behaviours and working conditions, he says.

Current projects: 

Evaluating the impact of mandatory awareness training on occupational health and safety (OHS) vulnerability in Ontario

Developing a gender/sex-sensitive understanding of how the psychosocial work environment is related to chronic disease

Understanding individual, workplace and system-level influences on return to work in a changing labour market

Selected Publications: 

McInnes JA, Akram M, MacFarlane E, Sim MR and Smith P. Association between high ambient temperature and acute work-related injury: a case-crossover analysis using workers’ compensation claims data. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 2017; 43(1):86-94

Smith P, Koehoorn M. Measuring gender when you don’t have a gender measure: constructing a gender index using survey data. International Journal for Equity in Health, 2016; 15:82

Smith P, Saunders R, Lifshen M, Black O, Lay M, Breslin FC, LaMontagne A, Tompa E. The development of a conceptual model and self-reported measure of occupational health and safety vulnerability. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 2015; 82:234-243; doi: 10.1016/j.aap.2015.06.004

Smith P. Workplace climate, employee actions, work injury and structural equation modelling [invited commentary]. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2015; 7(7):465-466

Smith P, Chen C, Mustard C, Bielecky A, Beaton DE, Ibrahim S. Examining the relationship between chronic conditions, multi-morbidity and labour market participation in Canada: 2000 to 2005. Ageing & Society, 2014; 34(10):1730-1748; doi: 10.1017/S0144686X13000457

Smith P, Black O, Keegel T, Collie A. Are the predictors of work absence following a work-related injury similar for musculoskeletal and mental health claims?Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 2014; 24(1):79-88; doi: 10.1007/s10926-013-9455-8

Smith P, Bielecky A, Ibrahim S, Mustard CA, Saunders R, Beaton DE, Koehoorn M, McLeod C, Scott-Marshall H, Hogg-Johnson. Impact of pre-existing chronic conditions on age differences in sickness absence after a musculoskeletal work injury: A path analysis approach. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 2014; 40(2):167-175; doi: 10.5271/sjweh.3397