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Increased OHS vulnerability linked to higher rates of self-reported injury: Study

Workers exposed to hazards, not protected by adequate policies and procedures most at risk
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Workers who report being vulnerable because they are exposed to job hazards from which they are not adequately protected by workplace policies, awareness programs or empowerment mechanisms also report much higher rates of work-related injury.

This finding comes from an Institute for Work & Health (IWH) study looking into the relationship between occupational health and safety vulnerability and work-related injury and illness, published in the journal Safety Science.

Vulnerability in the study was assessed using a 27-item measure developed by a research team led by Peter Smith, a scientist at IWH. The tool assesses workers as vulnerable when their responses indicate they are exposed to workplace hazards, as well as inadequate protection in at least one of these three areas: OHS policies and procedures, awareness of health and safety-related rights and responsibilities, or empowerment to act to protect themselves and colleagues.

“The study suggests that IWH’s OHS Vulnerability Measure meaningfully assesses workplace hazards and OHS program shortcomings that are associated with the frequency of work injuries and, if addressed, will likely result in fewer work-related injuries and illnesses down the road,” said Morgan Lay, a research associate at IWH and lead author of the study. “In this respect, the measure can help to identify potential risk reduction strategies before work-related injuries and illnesses occur.”

The study is based on the responses of over 1,500 working adults in Ontario and British Columbia who completed the OHS Vulnerability Measure in the spring of 2015. Respondents were also asked if they had missed work or visited a doctor in the past year because of a work-related physical or mental health injury.

The research team then compared the self-reported rates of work-related injury requiring time off work or medical attention among the respondents based upon their level of vulnerability as assessed by the OHS Vulnerability Measure. After taking gender, age, employment relationship, place of birth, occupational group and province into account, the research found the following:

The most vulnerable workers — those who were exposed to hazards and not protected by adequate policies and procedures, awareness or empowerment — were more likely (up to twice as likely) to report being injured at work than less vulnerable workers who were exposed to hazards and protected by adequate policies and procedures, awareness or empowerment. The most vulnerable workers were also much more likely (3.5 to 4.5 times more likely) to report being injured at work than the least vulnerable workers — those not exposed to hazards and protected by adequate policies and procedures, awareness or empowerment. 

Wherever possible, controlling or eliminating hazards is the preferred way of reducing vulnerability, Lay said. However, this study points to an opportunity to reduce work injuries in workplaces where exposure to hazards is embedded in the nature of the work.

“In work settings where the hazard is difficult to eliminate, it appears that strategies to improve protective policies and procedures, to strengthen awareness and to better empower works can also reduce injuries and illnesses,” she said.

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