Workers show valuable insight into OHS risks

In brief

  • Risks that are visible to workers are not always evident to experts. In this study, the workers provided more in-depth information than the ergonomist about physical, social and organizational risks and how they related.
  • The findings support a cooperative approach to health and safety, with a specific emphasis on including the worker.

Why was this study done?

Workplace risk assessments have generally been considered the work of trained experts, not workers. Yet recently there has been a trend to a more cooperative approach, with workers and others, in preventing and managing workplace injuries. This study looks at food service workers’ understanding of health and safety risks. Their views are compared expert opinions from a risk assessment professional.

How was the study done?

Semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted with 13 food service workers. They were asked about everyday work experiences, injury risks, strategies to avoid risk, and suggestions for workplace improvements. An ergonomist familiar with their worksites provided the expert risk assessment. Interview results were compared with the risks identified by the expert.

What did the researchers find?

Food service workers identified important risks, relating to social relations and work organization, which went beyond the physical risks cited by the ergonomist. For instance, although the ergonomist might have identified a slipping hazard, the workers could point out how and when the slips could happen. The ergonomist focused on risks within defined job tasks, but informal work organization could lead to unexpected changes. In one example, taller workers regularly reached for items for shorter workers. This movement was not captured in the ergonomic risks related to their job description. Although health and safety measures were in place, workers noted that their work was organized in such a way that these measures were not always enacted in practice.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

This study is among the first to evaluate workers’ insight into occupational risks relative to expert opinion. It provides background on the type of knowledge workers can bring to risk assessments on social and organizational risks. However, the findings are limited to the experiences of these participants, and may not represent the food service industry at large.

Publication Information


Lay versus expert understandings of workplace risk in the food service industry: A multi-dimensional model with implications for participatory ergonomics


Cann A, MacEachen E, Vandervoort A


IOS Press, 2008: vol. 30, pp. 219-228