Beyond concerns regarding flu pandemics, health and safety specialists are paying attention to other disease issues in Canadian organizations – chronic and acute problems that may not capture headlines the way H1N1 has, but issues that are nonetheless important to employers and employees.
In this article, we’ll present perspectives on occupational diseases from health and safety experts helping organizations to look deep within, keep current and look further afield.
The inside view
Ask the team of hygienists, nurses and ergonomists at Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers Inc. (OHCOW) for their opinion of the most pressing workplace disease, and they’ll tell you it’s musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) — soft-tissue injuries often brought on by repetitive exertions and awkward postures in the workplace.
The organization was founded by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and receives funding from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Today, MSDs could count as OHCOW’s number-one issue.
“There have been so many offices established over the last 20, 30 years and the use of computers has grown over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Dr. Sayed Naqvi, an ergonomist at OHCOW’s Toronto office.
He explains that the technology outpaced the resources required to ensure the equipment is used safely — ways to avoid back and next strain, arm and wrist pain, and other problems associated with improper posture in computer use. “The workstations haven’t kept up.”
According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, workplace ergonomic-related injuries are responsible for more than 40 per cent of lost-time injuries. The direct costs totalled more than $3 billion from 1996 to 2004. MSDs, repetitive strain injury (RSI), cumulative trauma disorder (CTD) and repetitive motion injury (RMI) develop after repetitive, stressful or awkward movements on bones, joints and ligaments.
The pace of prevention mechanisms has increased recently as organizations become more aware of the issue. One helpful tool: the WSIB has developed a resource sheet to help identify and prevent MSDs — available on the Ontario Labour Ministry Web site: www.labour.gov.on.ca.
In Ontario, the provincial government has also been increasing training for industrial and health care inspectors to ensure they have the education required to understand the problem and help organizations prevent MSDs.
But the work is far from complete. In a presentation, Donald Cole, senior scientist at the Institute for Work and Health — a not-for-profit organization focused on worker health issues — reported that the majority of people who experience physical pain in the workplace don’t report it to employers. Forty per cent said they feared reprisals such as being laid off if they reported the pain.
In his research, Cole also discovered that majority of Canadian organizations don’t implement ways to reduce risk factors — monitoring for risks and using that information to guide programs among health care organizations was rare, for instance.
Health care is considered a high-risk industry for MSDs. “It’s because of all the lifting and awkward postures that health care professionals do, particularly nurses and nurses’ aids,” says Cheryl Rook, an occupational health nurse at OHCOW.
From her point of view, it’s difficult to say if the prevention message is reaching employers and employees. On one hand, “nearly 50 per cent of the diseases we see coming through the door are musculoskeletal related,” Rook says. “I’m not seeing any decrease.”
But at the same time, “there’s greater awareness among the general public.” She notes that Repetitive Strain Injury Day has been around for the last decade or so — every February — and events like that might have raised awareness. “That may also have helped people to recognize and report work-related injuries, whereas they wouldn’t have done that when there was less awareness of it.”
Plenty of work is underway to help increase awareness, and to help health and safety specialists keep up on current events supporting workplace injury- and disease-prevention.
In May, the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba (WCBM) announced that it had rolled out a new round of funding for its Community Initiatives and Research Program (CIRP). Designed to help reduce workplace injuries — and the associated costs to businesses — the latest funding went to organizations conducting specific research:
• identifying hazards for home care workers
• examining the relationship between lung ?and skin diseases caused by occupational exposures
• analyzing disability management programs ?in construction
• reviewing health and safety issues related ?to older workers
Alongside all of the above, the WCBM also said it would change the name of the CIRP to the Research and Workplace Innovation Program (RWIP), making $1 million available each year to fund research and programs for improving workplace health and safety. Focusing on projects limited to two years or less in duration and costing $100,000 or less each year, the RWIP will be reviewed in 2012, after three years of activity.
As for the current year, October is Canada Healthy Workplace Month. For four weeks, organizations are encouraged to help build awareness of workplace health research and how its outcomes impact business productivity. This year’s theme: Healthy mind, healthy body, healthy work.
The event began in 2001 as Canada’s Healthy Workplace Week. Last year, it was extended and now operates under the National Quality Institute (NQI) — an arm of Industry Canada focused on organizational excellence — and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).
Health and safety specialists are encouraged to visit the Healthy Workplace Month web site to participate in activities designed to promote healthful work environments.
The University of British Columbia’s Centre for Health and Environment Research (CHER) is also focused on fostering healthful work environments, particularly for health care employees. The organization is conducting a study of the risks health workers face from exposure to antineoplastic agents.
Forms of cytotoxic agents, these drugs are commonly used in health care settings for cancer treatment, CHER explains. Exposure for workers handling the drugs could result in adverse health effects, including reproductive problems and cancer.
Although health organizations have developed guidelines to help minimize exposure, tests indicate that contamination is still a potential danger in many health care workplaces. The CHER study, which counts the Occupational Health and Safety Agency for Healthcare in British Columbia (OHSAH) as a co-investigator, aims to identify factors related to exposure, with an eye towards strengthening control measures.
Control measures are part and parcel of the concern that a group of health and safety specialists have taken into their purview, going further afield than Canada’s borders.
These folks are concerned about this country’s continuing exports of asbestos — a substance once used as an insulator in construction, but now banned for use here.
It’s still produced in Canada, and sold abroad.
Jason Hoffman is one of the concerned health and safety specialists. He’s an occupational hygienist and the president of the Occupational Hygiene Association of Ontario (OHAO).
The organization has been tracking the federal government’s policies on the issue, concerned that although the government often argues that asbestos handlers abroad have the training and equipment to deal with the substance safely, research indicates that’s not the case.
Hoffman is worried that Canada is doing the wrong thing by continuing to allow asbestos exports while it forbids use of the substance at home for health concerns.
He says it’s increasingly important for health and safety specialists to pay attention to broader issues like this one. It’s also somewhat inevitable as workplaces change.
“A lot of us, as businesses have been purchased and bought out, work in multinational organizations,” Hoffman says. “You can’t help but have a more global perspective and see the disparity in conditions.”
Exposure to asbestos is the most common cause of mesothelioma, a rare yet highly fatal form of cancer. According to the Canadian Medical Association, more than 80 per cent of men diagnosed with mesothelioma were likely exposed to asbestos in the workplace.
Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.