What research can do: IWH study on working at heights training well-received

Published: December 14, 2023

The construction sector has long been identified as one with a relatively high risk of occupational injuries and fatalities. In Ontario, the construction sector experienced more fatalities than any other sector, most of which were caused by falls from heights.

In 2015, the province’s Ministry of Labour (as it was then known) introduced standard working-at-heights (WAH) training. Workers who needed to use a fall protection method on a construction project, typically those working three meters or more above ground in settings unprotected by other means such as guardrails, had until October 1, 2017, to pass the new training.

A separate standard (the training provider standard) set out certification requirements for organizations intending to deliver the training. It specified learning objectives, a minimum class length, a mandatory classroom component, and a maximum class size. It also required trainees to pass a knowledge test and demonstrate skills. The old regulations did require training but did not include these specifications. Before the new standard, WAH training had varied markedly across training providers. It often had been quite brief and not always hands-on.

The Institute for Work & Health (IWH) saw an opportunity to conduct a study on the training standard. Led by IWH Scientist Dr. Lynda Robson, the multi-component study found evidence that the training improved knowledge, use of safe practices, and safety outcomes (see the 2019 study report). A survey of learners showed improved compliance with WAH safety practices four weeks after the training compared with pre-training practices. The study also included a comparison of lost-time claims data (data from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board on work injuries that require time away from) for 2017 with that for 2012-14. It found a statistically significant impact of the WAH training intervention on falls in the construction sector targeted by the intervention.

Beginning in 2019, Robson and her team conducted a follow-up study. This included a two-year follow-up survey of learners from the initial study. It incorporated another knowledge test and an updated examination of workers’ compensation claims data. The results on the knowledge test had slipped to 7.5 out of 10, but remained higher than before the training. The trainee survey indicated no slippage or erosion of the improvements in safety practice. The study’s analysis of compensation claims data also showed a 19 per cent decline in Ontario in the incidence rate of fall injuries targeted by the training. That incidence rate is lower than the six per cent decline in the other nine provinces, suggesting that the Ontario program was effective in reducing the targeted falls.

According to officials at the now renamed Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development (MLITSD), the IWH evaluation of the WAH training standard was valuable in several ways. One was to confirm the effectiveness of the training standard. The IWH evaluation provided an important validation of the Working at Heights Training Standard, says Annie Siddiqi, former Manager of the Training and Awareness Unit in the Prevention Division. It indicated that the training was effective in enhancing knowledge, improving safety practices and reducing injuries. The evaluation, along with our stakeholder consultations, showed that while some improvements to the standard could be made, it was fundamentally sound.

Another contribution of the study was to help make the case to stakeholders of the value of the training. The new program required a substantial investment on the part of employers as well as training providers, says Jules Arntz-Gray, former Director of the Training and Awareness Branch in the Prevention Division and currently the Director of the Occupational Health and Safety Branch of the Ministry’s Fair, Safe and Healthy Workplaces Division. A key question was, was it worth it? The IWH evaluation showed that the new program yielded valuable results. In particular, the reduction in fall injuries targeted by the training was sizeable.

What's more, the IWH study helped reinforce the importance of program evaluation at the Ministry.  The IWH evaluation of the Working at Heights Training Standard is a good example of how program evaluation can help ensure that programs are designed and implemented in a way that delivers results, says Monica Bienefeld, Acting Director of the Analytics and Evidence Branch in the Prevention Division.

Arntz-Gray echoes this sentiment: The Ministry is now giving more attention to measurement and evaluation, he says. The IWH study was influential in this culture shift. We point to it often.