Grant round-up: IWH research aims for practical results

Here’s a quick preview of five research projects at the Institute for Work & Health that recently got the ‘green light.’ They promise to bring results that can help prevent workplace injury and disability.

Published: April 23, 2012

Without funding, research would never see the light of day, let alone be applied to policies and programs that protect and improve the health of working people. The Institute for Work & Health (IWH) is supported by core funding from Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), but it also turns to research funding agencies and programs to further its exploration of important injury and disability prevention issues. From July 2010 to December 2011, IWH got the go-ahead on nearly 30 projects. Here’s a glimpse at five of them.

Work injury, disability and poverty

What happens to workers who sustain a permanent impairment from a work accident? Research shows they earn less, suffer long-term financial losses and are at increased risk of poverty.

This project, funded by WSIB’s Research Advisory Council (RAC) and led by IWH Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa, investigates the extent of poverty among claimants with permanent impairments across different time periods and different workers’ compensation programs to determine if poverty levels have increased. It could be that changes in contracting practices have made it more difficult for these workers to maintain paid employment, says Tompa. If so, then support structures that facilitate labour-market re-entry may need to be enhanced.

The insights gained from this study will inform compensation policies and programs so that they can better ensure that injured workers with permanent impairments do not fall into poverty.

Older workers and the impact of physical conditions and depression

The Canadian population is aging. Given the importance of keeping older people in the workforce, we need to understand if declines in health associated with age affect the ability of older workers to continue working. This study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, examines the impact of physical conditions and depression on the labour market participation of older working-age Canadians, and explores differences between men and women.

By developing a clearer understanding of the effects that mental and physical health conditions, including multiple chronic conditions, can have on the ability to work, we will be in a better position to address the barriers faced by older workers who want to stay in the workforce, says IWH Scientist Dr. Peter Smith, who is leading this project.

Return-to-work prognostic factors for chronic low-back pain

In cases of lower back injury, it’s hard to say when workers can return to the job. When the pain is chronic, it adds a complicating layer.

This project will try to determine the factors that predict time away from work among people with chronic low-back pain. It builds upon an earlier study that looked at similar factors among people with acute low-back pain. That study, as is this one, was funded by the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba.

What’s most exciting is that we plan to combine the findings from both studies to develop a practical guideline for health-care and case-management professionals who work with injured workers to help improve return-to-work outcomes for injured workers with low-back pain, says IWH Associate Scientist Dr. Ivan Steenstra, who is heading the study.

Literacy and occupational health and safety training

Research has shown that as little as 10 hours of training in areas such as interpreting documents, oral communications and basic math can improve these skills. However, there is little or no research to show if adding literacy and other essential skills to occupational health and safety (OHS) training would make it more effective.

This research, funded by WSIB RAC, will determine if it is feasible to enhance literacy and other essential skills within occupational health and safety training. If the assessment is positive, we would seek funding for a subsequent project to implement and evaluate a pilot program, says the study’s lead, Dr. Ron Saunders, IWH senior scientist and director of knowledge transfer and exchange.

Breakthrough change in occupational health and safety

How is it possible that one manufacturing plant sees improvements in OHS, while another plant, owned by the same company, does not see the same success? This project, funded by WSIB RAC, focuses on what it takes to make large improvements in OHS, and why some workplaces do when others don’t. It compares three ‘sister’ plants in Alberta, Texas and Ontario—the last one showing a large decrease in its total injury rate over the previous decade.

This research builds on another project on breakthrough change in workplace OHS performance. Both projects are led by IWH Associate Scientist Dr. Lynda Robson. This research will provide information to workplaces about what is needed to greatly improve OHS programs, says Robson.