Grant round-up: IWH research to provide practical answers to OHS/RTW questions

Thanks to funding from external funding agencies and programs, IWH scientists hope to find answers to important questions concerning injury rates, older workers, time off work, temporary work agencies and more.

Published: October 23, 2009

Evidence-based answers to occupational health and safety and return-to-work questions are important to workers, employers and policy-makers alike. To find these answers, 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.

Over the past year, the Institute got the thumbs-up from a number of these agencies and programs to do just that. Many of the funded studies will produce findings of practical importance. Here is a quick look at some of these.

Examining job injuries among older workers

The workforce in Canada is aging. More Canadians than ever before are over the age of 55, and they’re staying at work – either by choice or out of necessity. We know from previous research that older workers don’t get injured as often as younger workers. Yet, when they do, their injuries tend to be more severe, requiring more health care and time off work.

Why? Are chronic conditions often associated with aging — e.g. arthritis, vision and hearing problems, hypertension — affecting the type and duration of work injuries among older workers?

This is one of the questions IWH Scientist Dr. Peter Smith is setting out to answer through a study funded by WorkSafeBC. Using British Columbia data, Smith and his fellow researchers will examine injury trends and consequences among older workers compared to their younger counterparts.

The aging workforce is one of the biggest issues we face today, says Smith. We hope to provide information that will help with policy development related to the prevention and consequences of work injuries among older workers in B.C. and Canada.

Developing a tool to predict time off work

When workers injure their backs on the job, knowing when they might return to work could help on many fronts. Workers might feel less anxious about what the future holds. Workplaces would be in a better position to know if they need to make alternate work arrangements and for how long. Workers’ compensation boards would know what help they need to offer, and when, to ensure workers’ early and safe return to work.

Such a tool is now in the works. Thanks to a grant from the WSIB Research Advisory Council (RAC), IWH Scientist Dr. Ivan Steenstra is leading a team that will determine what combination of factors best predicts how long a worker will remain off the job.

This information will give rise to “prediction rules,” as Steenstra calls them. The final product will be a computerized tool that projects different injured worker outcomes, such as time remaining on benefits and the likelihood of a recurrence, he adds.

Understanding OHS, RTW among temporary work agencies

Temporary work agencies are a growing trend, responding to the need of businesses to quickly and easily increase or decrease their workforces relative to product demand. However, the use of these agencies gives rise to a three-way employment relationship among the agency, client employer and the worker. This introduces difficulties into the management of occupational health and safety (OHS) and return to work (RTW).

Just how temporary work agencies are organized and how they manage OHS and RTW is the focus of a study being led by IWH Scientist Dr. Ellen MacEachen. She and her team, with funding from WSIB RAC, will explore OHS and RTW responsibilities, communications and current practices among temporary work agencies and client firms.

In the end, we want to identify practices for employers and worker representatives that can help protect and restore the health of workers hired by temporary work agencies, says MacEachen. The study will also help WSIB and Ministry of Labour policy-makers, case managers and inspectors respond to the challenges in this growing, non-standard work arrangement.

Mapping work injury rates across Canada

Wouldn’t it be helpful if workers’ compensation boards, health and safety associations and other members of the workplace injury prevention system knew where, geographically, to target their limited resources, and with what kind of program? IWH Scientist Dr. Curtis Breslin hopes to provide this type of information through a study funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Breslin and his team are going to map work injury rates across the country, at both provincial and regional levels. They are going to provide rates for both traumatic injuries and musculoskeletal disorders at the provincial level, compare how work injury rates differ between men and women, and look at how rates relate to regional socioeconomic and labour market differences.

Regions with lower-than-expected injury rates would give rise to the question: What is happening here that is not happening elsewhere? says Breslin. The information could also help prevention systems target resources on regional ‘hot spots,’ so to speak.