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Work disability increases risk of premature death: Study

By Uyen Vu

People who are permanently impaired by work-related injury face a greater risk of dying early, according to a new study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) in Toronto.

“For both men and women with a permanent work-related impairment, a crucial factor that predicts whether they die early is what we call ‘work disability’ — the difficulty they face staying in the labour market,” said IWH associate scientist Heather Scott-Marshall, who led the study, Long-Term Mortality Risk in Individuals with Permanent Work-Related Impairment.

Work disability, she explains, stems from the physical, psychological and emotional difficulties individuals experience coping with, or adapting to, an acquired impairment. These difficulties can affect their sense of self and create problems with social role functioning, such as how they fulfill their roles as a worker, spouse and parent.

“This, in turn, can affect their ability to re-enter the labour market after an injury and may compromise long-term employment success,” said Scott-Marshall. 

Other key factors contributing to work disability include stigma and discrimination against workers with impairment, which have been shown to affect opportunities in the labour market.

The IWH study used an innovative technique to link a set of data kept by Statistics Canada with another database held by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. It took a sample of 19,000 Ontarians whose work-related injury left them permanently impaired, and followed their outcomes for up to 19 years.

To set up a comparison or control group, researchers paired each individual in the injured sample with up to 10 other people who did not experience a work injury but shared similar characteristics such as age, sex, region of residence and income level.

The study found the overall rate of death in men with permanent impairments was 14 per cent, compared to nine per cent in the non-injured control group, representing a 55 per cent higher risk of mortality. For women, the death rate among those with permanent impairments was six per cent, compared to four per cent in non-injured controls — a 50 per cent higher risk. The study also found a higher risk of death showed up most starkly one decade or more after the injury.

For both men and women, a disabling injury at a young age (25 to 39) meant a higher likelihood of premature death. 

“This again probably ties into work disability and the fact that younger people may have greater difficulty getting back to work,” said Scott-Marshall. “It could be that people at a younger age are less established in the labour market when they get injured. Or maybe the type of work they do is more physical and less easy to go back to after the injury. These are only speculations for the time being and further research will tell us more.” 

Uyen Vu is the editor of At Work, the quarterly newsletter of the Institute for Work & Health.

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