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Heading North: Profile on the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health

By Amanda Silliker
| www.cos-mag.com
Sandra Dorman

A

 worker sits in a chair that vibrates three-dimensionally, mimicking what he feels when driving a scoop tram in a mine. He is in an environment chamber that is 42 C, simulating a typical workday underground. He is wearing eyeglasses that track his eye movement, capturing where he is looking and what he is paying attention to. These three pieces of infrastructure target critical issues relating to health and safety in many workplaces and will help researchers test interventions when the workplace simulator opens in 2018 at the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH).

“It’s simulating the work environment but it allows us to measure what’s happening to the worker while in that work environment,” says Sandra Dorman, director of the centre at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. “If we understand where the worker is looking and how the heat, humidity and vibration impacts the worker, we can come up with better solutions to inform the worker about hazards as well as mitigate exposures or modify practice to prevent injury or health consequences.” 

The simulator will be used to tackle a wide variety of occupational health and safety concerns, including vehicle-on-vehicle and vehicle-on-pedestrian collisions; heat stress; vibration-induced injury; reproductive health issues; and in-vehicle screen design.

CROSH was established with the goal of helping northern industries eliminate occupational injury and disease. Fatal, traumatic injury rates are particularly high in the resource-based industries found in northern Ontario: 13.6 per 100,000 full-time equivalents in forestry; 10.4 in mining; and 9.6 in aggregates.

The simulator is just one of the projects CROSH has in the works. A mobile laboratory is being purchased and retrofitted to meet the

centre’s needs.

“It’s basically a souped-up research lab that allows us to go into those really northern communities,” says Dorman. “How do we let the workers have a voice? How do we let the workers be participatory? We bring it to them.”

Designed to be interdisciplinary, the lab will be able to accommodate various types of research, whether it be sleep studies, surveys or vibration research.

“Ideally, we want it to be used where multiple researchers can travel together and answer

more than one question at the same time,”

says Dorman.

The centre has a very strong field-lab-field mandate. First, it goes to workers and employers to find out what problems they are having and to measure the issue, if applicable. For example, CROSH is currently looking at vibration-induced white foot (a reduction in the blood supply to the toes) so it goes into the field to measure the levels of vibration workers are experiencing. Then, it brings this back to the lab at Laurentian to troubleshoot the problem, which is where the workplace simulator will come in handy.

“Maybe we can modify the insoles of the boot to suppress the transmission of the vibration to the foot,” says Dorman. “What we can do with the robot is have workers stand on the platform in the different boots and figure out what works, what’s comfortable, etcetera.”

The third piece is going back into the field to re-test the findings with the workers. While the many different insole options can be narrowed down significantly in the lab — which is a real time saver for employers — the ultimate decision needs to be made with the workers.

“There’s lots that comes up in the field that you didn’t necessarily foresee and when you try and put the boots in the field and they say, ‘These are stupid because they are not waterproof and that’s essential in this condition,’ then they fail in the field,” says Dorman. “The third piece is really critical to make sure that they like what you came up with.”

CROSH is also working closely with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to mitigate fatigue among forest firefighters. They have developed an intervention with two elements: task-specific fitness exercises and mental wellness.

“The number 1 injury for FireRangers is twisted ankles, slip and trip-type falls, the uneven terrain, so we are trying to strengthen their wrists and ankles, for example. They would have specific fitness tasks they would be required to do on base,” says Dorman. “There’s also a psychosocial component. They do tend to report high job stress, so we are going in and giving them strategies to better manage their personal stress. Every week they will get a reminder of something that stresses you in the workplace and maybe ways that you can manage it.”

Dorman and her team also determined an nutritional education was also necessary.

“They don’t eat enough. They burn almost 5,000 calories a day, which is the amount an athlete will burn. I call them occupational athletes and they need to eat to match their energy expenditure,” she says.

Geographic challenges

Being in the northern region of Ontario is a critical component of the centre.

“It provides an opportunity to look at the problems that are specific to northern Ontario but also, they are problems that are specific to geographically isolated and rural workplaces,” says Dorman.

Northern Ontario has a land area of 802,000 kilometres squared, constituting 87 per cent of total land area of Ontario, so communities are often very far away from each other. The climate is characterized by extremes in temperatures, which causes challenges in terms of travel, the operation of equipment and ability to work outdoors.

Northern workplaces are largely male-dominated due to the types of industries in the area, such as utilities, construction, fishing, logging and mills.

“If I’m trying to deliver an educational piece on occupational health and safety, the approach that I might take in a large urban centre would not necessarily fly up here,” says Dorman. “You need to have a better understanding of what’s the worker’s perspective, what is meaningful to them, before you deliver the content.”

Northern workers also commute to work in a very different way. They often fly in for the job and fly

out weeks later, which comes with a slew of challenges, including poor nutrition, shift work and personal stress.

“We may see that a person’s stress goes up when they are not at work because when they get back home, there’s all these other things that have been building up in their absence. Maybe it’s bills, social relationships, missed a kid’s performance and those have internal repercussions,” says Dorman.

Northern Ontario workers and employers have shown a lot of interest in CROSH’s projects. For example, the centre is working with Vale on mental health in mining. When CROSH needed to pilot the employee survey, it asked for 40 workers to come to the lab to test it out — 80 people volunteered immediately, says Dorman.

“One of our strengths is we work well with communities and workplaces and they support us,” she says. “They know we are CROSH and we get where they are coming from and we want to help them, so they want to help us too.”

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of COS. 

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