Institute provides training ground for young work-health researchers

Published: November 10, 2007

Research in Canada clearly plays a vital role in our country’s knowledge growth. If Canada is to compete globally, it must have highly skilled researchers to lead in the advancement of knowledge and to mentor the next generation of researchers. How do research organizations sustain and enhance the development of researchers, and how do they attract and engage new researchers? There are rewards and challenges for such organizations that undertake training of new researchers.

When work-related health research is considered, the challenge grows. In 2005, $6.8 billion was spent on compensation benefits to injured workers in Canada. Yet, a small portion of available research dollars is invested into looking at occupational health and safety issues that might prevent injury or illness. Only a handful of organizations across the country dedicate resources to examining issues related to the health of workers and workplace health and safety – and the Institute for Work & Health is one.

Mentoring up-and-coming researchers

Every five years, the Institute’s Board of Directors commissions an independent review by an external panel to assess the Institute’s research and knowledge transfer and exchange (KTE) programs and to provide recommendations for the next five years. The panel wrote a report that emphasized, among a number of recommendations, the importance of the Institute’s role in mentoring young researchers in occupational health and safety. They recommended that the Institute should continue to maintain and protect its role in training and educating students. The panel made it clear to us that graduate student and post-doctoral training must continue to be a priority. In the past, we have made considerable commitments to this, but now we are working on a plan to move our training program to a new and sustainable level, says Dr. Benjamin C. Amick III, the Institute’s Scientific Director. We hope to launch a new, consolidated program that builds on past success and that captures all of our training initiatives in a more formal structure that will benefit students.

Currently, the Institute – through support from the Foundation for Research and Education in Work and Health Studies – has managed several training and graduate student fellowships (see below) that help build research capacity and further develop interest in this important area. We offer a unique multidisciplinary environment that brings people together from many different disciplines and formal backgrounds, which is quite different from a typical university setting, says the Institute’s Director of Operations Sandra Sinclair, who also notes that in the past five years more than 50 graduate and post-doctoral fellows have trained at the Institute.

In addition to its access to workplaces and rich datasets, the Institute offers support to researchers to “transfer” their findings to those who can use them. Our students don’t just come here to study occupational health and safety issues, they are interested in the end result: ‘How will the research that I do affect the labour market?’ We focus on solutions and I think students appreciate that, says Sinclair.

Under the guidance from senior scientific staff, students participate in projects to broaden their skills and gain practical work experience. From the Institute’s early days, it has focused on the prevention, treatment and management of work-related musculoskeletal disorders and now its researchers and trainees are broadening their scope to include additional issues in work and health today, often with support of national and international research grants.

Etches values moving research findings into practice

The association between income level and health status is well established. Good health leads to higher income, and higher income leads to good health. At all income levels, the richer tend to be healthier. But the underlying mechanisms or reasons, their relative importance, and what can be done about them remain areas of active research. PhD candidate and Institute Research Associate Jacob Etches is examining how the relationship between sudden decreases in a person’s income impacts a person’s health, and whether any effect of income drops on health depends on prior income level.

Etches is using the Longitudinal Administrative Databank (LAD), which captures 20 per cent of Canadian income tax filers and their families from 1982 to the present. That’s about 100 million person-years of detailed income history. The labour market is increasingly dynamic, and we rely, in part, on income security programs to protect the health of workers and their families from the associated risks. At the moment, policy-makers do not know the impact of these programs on population health, says Etches.

In addition to his PhD studies, Etches is working with Institute President Dr. Cameron Mustard on a project examining work-related motor vehicle collisions. Estimates suggest that between 2000 and 2004, these collisions were responsible for 208 work-related deaths in Ontario, accounting for 43 per cent of all workplace traumatic deaths. This study is unique because we’re linking two large databases: one from the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and the other from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. We are analyzing how injuries are distributed by factors such as vehicle type, road conditions, industry, occupation, time of day, and driver behaviour, says Etches. Both Mustard and Etches are presenting preliminary results at an epidemiology conference this fall.

Etches values his training at the Institute. Being based at a thematic applied research organization has taught me to ask whether my research is relevant to a defined set of stakeholders. This is a useful discipline that I doubt I would have acquired on a university campus.

Workers’ mental health issues interests Rivilis

Mental health issues in workers are receiving a great deal of needed attention from workplaces. Many organizations are trying to find new and better ways to address their employees’ physical and mental health and to find solutions to help employees cope. Addressing these issues can benefit companies as it could ultimately increase productivity and save money. Irina Rivilis is working toward a PhD in epidemiology from the University of Toronto and hopes to complete it within the next two years. Her thesis is based on looking at how organizations are measuring disability management (DM) and finding solutions about what can be done to help improve these programs.

She’s involved in a research project that brings organizations, researchers and disability management professionals together to develop standard benchmarks – or points of reference – on how well organizations are doing in disability management practices, relative to their peers. In the first stage of the project, we are finding out which benchmarks are useful to companies, says Rivilis. To date, 11 organizations are participating in this project. We hope that we are able to develop benchmarks across the organizations. With this information, companies can fine-tune their disability management practices to help workers, she says. There’s a real need for this type of research given the rising costs of disability.

More recently, Rivilis presented some preliminary findings on workers’ mental health issues at a conference on mental health in the workplace. Based on our analysis, we observed that short-term disability due to a mental disorder was highly prevalent in our sample of workers, she said. I hope that eventually, we can find ways to help organizations improve and manage mental health issues in workers. Rivilis says she also benefits from working with many stakeholders. The Institute has given me the opportunity to collaborate with many stakeholders and develop links to workplaces. This, coupled with the mentorship and guidance I receive from Institute Senior Scientist Dr. Donald Cole, is a huge positive.

Kosny examines immigrants’ experiences post-injury

Canada is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. In fact, just over half of the people living in Toronto are immigrants. So what experiences do immigrants have after a work-related injury or illness? This is an important question that Institute Post-doctoral Fellow Dr. Agnieszka Kosny hopes to answer with a research project she’s spearheading.

The research team, working with community and injured worker groups, is interviewing immigrant service providers (such as health-care professionals who have contact with injured immigrant workers), injured worker advocates, and those who focus on immigrant populations. We’re also talking with two groups of injured immigrant workers – those who filed a compensation claim and those who didn’t, says Kosny. We’d like to know if workers understand what their rights are and whether they feel that they can invoke them. For those who accessed the compensation system, we would like to learn about their experiences. For example, did they receive culturally-sensitive and language-appropriate services? The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s Research Advisory Council is funding the study.

In addition to this project, Kosny is further developing her PhD work, which examined non-profit organizations as workplaces. I volunteered and worked at several non-profits and I felt that they weren’t really considered to be workplaces. They were viewed more as charities – the focus, perhaps understandably, was clearly on the client rather than on the worker. She studied how the organizations’ missions and the process of providing help shaped how risks were understood and managed by workers.

Kosny is now examining how OHS regulation, workers’ compensation and workplace policies affect workers in non-profits. Many non-profits in Ontario do not have mandatory workers’ compensation coverage and volunteers are not covered by workers’ compensation or the OHS Act. This may leave many workers vulnerable.

Gray researches “near miss events”

On an assembly line, a worker steps away for a moment to put a quality tag on a bundle of steel pipe. Suddenly, the machine jams and spits out a flying pipe in the same spot where the worker had just been standing. The worker realizes that if she had not (luckily) moved, she may have been seriously injured. This is a “near miss event” and it could have had serious consequences.

Garry C. Gray joined the Institute in 2005 as a Syme Fellow and, in 2006, was awarded an Institute post-doctoral fellowship to examine “near miss events” and their impact on everyday workplace practices. There is a great deal of attention on outcomes, but my focus is on the ‘near miss’ process, says Gray, who’s defending his PhD this fall. For every workplace accident, there are hundreds of near misses. By studying near misses, you gain insight into safety cultures as well as the potential for decreasing accidents, says Gray.

He conducted a five-month observational study of a large factory in Ontario and, one year later, followed up with a survey to workers that included questions about safety practices and management commitments to safety. Gray is also researching safety rights, in particular, the legal right to refuse unsafe work.

Recently, Gray was also the first recipient of the Carol McGregor Post-doctoral Fellowship. He will work on several projects including one that is looking at the effectiveness of health and safety management system audit tools. These tools address safety issues from the organizational, management and worker levels.

The aspect of working with people at IWH from different disciplines appeals to Gray. I’m involved in projects where team members come from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds. This allows me to listen to different perspectives on an issue, which I find quite valuable and rewarding, he says.