Our history

The origins

In 1990, the Workers’ Compensation Board of Ontario (now called the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board or WSIB) introduced a new medical rehabilitation strategy. The strategy was built around a network of 100 community clinics and regional evaluation centres designed to provide workers with soft-tissue injuries rapid access to needed assessments and treatments.

Dr. Robert Elgie, then chair of the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) of Ontario, and Dr. Alan Wolfson, then its vice-chair and president, recognized the need for an independent, not-for-profit organization to do high quality research on the effectiveness of the Board’s medical rehabilitation services. The Ontario Workers’ Compensation Institute was born.

The Institute’s initial mandate was to conduct health-care research into the management of workers with injury and disease, contribute new knowledge to the training of medical rehabilitation professionals, and monitor the quality of the provincial WCB’s community-based rehabilitation services. The overall goal was to return injured workers to full functioning as soon as possible. Injury prevention was not a big part of the mix.

However, that changed when Dr. Fraser Mustard, the chair of the Institute’s inaugural Board of Directors, ensured the first master agreement between the Institute and the WCB included a focus on “upstream” research that would look at factors that contribute to work injury and illness at both the workplace and societal level. The organization was renamed the Institute for Work & Health in 1994 to reflect this broadened mandate.

Laying the groundwork

The Institute’s growth during its first few years was incremental and focused on laying the groundwork—recruiting senior scientists from related academic institutions, staffing administrative positions and building its research program. By the mid-1990s, however, the Institute had blossomed, and initial research results were forthcoming.

From the outset, the Institute took a broader view of its mandate than most occupational health research institutions. Its research agenda included not simply the causes, treatment and prevention of conditions caused by work exposures, but also the fundamental determinants of health as manifested in workforces; that is, the broad social, cultural, economic and political forces that influence the nature of work and the way it is done. This work suggested that true primary prevention of the major causes of occupational disability necessarily involves high-level policy interventions.

The Institute also took a broader view with respect to disseminating its research findings to those who could use them to make a difference in protecting the health of workers. In 1998, research transfer was established as a core business of the Institute alongside research, and an evidence-based strategy on research transfer—now called knowledge transfer and exchange—was developed and implemented early in 2000.

Building trust

Since day one, the Institute worked hard to build trusting relationships with all stakeholders in injury prevention, return to work and workers’ compensation in Ontario. Its Board of Directors included business, labour, policy and research leaders from Ontario and beyond. Today, the make-up of Institute’s Board remains the same.

The Institute has also received guidance from a Scientific Advisory Committee throughout most of its 25 years. This committee is made up of leaders in work and health research from North America and Europe. Members meet annually to review the quality and direction of the Institute’s research, reporting its findings to the Institute’s Board. IWH has also taken advantage of the advice of a Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Advisory Committee, which, with some exceptions, meets yearly to provide feedback and suggestions to the Institute’s KTE team.

The Institute has benefitted from stable core funding, which provides a solid base from which to seek further research grant and other funding. The core funder was Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and its predecessors for the first 22 years and then, as of 2013, the Province of Ontario through the Ministry of Labour (now known as Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development).

As a result, IWH’s connection to Ontario is fundamental to its identity. Fundamental, but not exclusive. IWH focuses its research on the Ontario workforce and on Ontario workplace issues, while collaborating with researchers and research organizations elsewhere in Canada and internationally.

From a fledgling organization with six staff and a loosely defined mandate in 1990 to a mature and unique interdisciplinary research and knowledge transfer organization with over 50 employees today, the Institute for Work & Health is now recognized provincially, nationally and internationally for its contribution to the fields of occupational health, work injury and disability prevention, and work-related population health.



The Ontario Workers’ Compensation Institute (OCWI) is created through a master agreement with the Workers’ Compensation Board.

Dr. Fraser Mustard is recruited as the first chair of the Institute’s Board of Directors and tasked with the role of steering and developing this new research organization.

Dr. Hugh Smythe, an internationally renowned rheumatologist, is brought on board as the Institute’s first president.


Dr. John Frank, a member of the Population Health program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, becomes the Institute’s first research director. He is joined by Dr. Claire Bombardier from the University of Toronto and Dr. Harry Shannon from McMaster University to become the first three senior scientists at the Institute.

Emma Irvin joins the Institute to open up its library. She gains in-depth knowledge of IWH operations in the ensuing years, resulting in her appointment as director of research operations in 2008.


Dr. Sheilah Hogg-Johnson from the University of Toronto joins the Institute as its senior biostatistician. For the next 20-plus years, she provides expertise in statistical methodology, eventually becoming an associate scientific director at the Institute.

The Research Advisory Committee (SAC) meets for the first time to assess the independence, breadth and quality of the Institute’s research. Now named the Scientific Advisory Committee, this ongoing committee of distinguished international research experts continues to provide important feedback on IWH’s program of research.


Dr. Terrence Sullivan becomes the second president of the Institute, bringing with him a strong background in public policy and health policy.


The OWCI is renamed the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) to reflect the widening scope of its research.


After being seconded from Ontario’s Workers’ Compensation Board in 1992, Sandra Sinclair takes on a full-time position at the Institute as director of research operations and diffusion.

The Institute enters into a formal affiliation agreement with the University of Toronto. Similar agreements are later entered into with the University of Waterloo (1996), McMaster University (1997) and York University (2002)

IWH publishes the first issue of its flagship newsletter At Work, and joins the Internet age with the launch of www.iwh.on.ca.


The Institute sponsors the creation of the Cochrane Back Review Group (CBRG). The founding co-editors of CBRG are Dr. Claire Bombardier of IWH and Dr. Alf Nachemson from Sweden.

The DASH (Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder and Hand) Outcome Measure is developed and launched to help bring consistency to the measurement of pain and functional limitations from upper extremity MSDs.

The report of the first five-year (1991-1996) external review panel assessing IWH’s work remarks that “the interdisciplinary research approach to workers’ health and, particularly, the emphasis on the determinants of workers’ health” are “a distinctive trait” of the Institute, contributing to the “practical applications of IWH research in workplace policy development.”


Anne Larson joins IWH as vice-president responsible for application of the Institute’s research, related business development and administration.

Mary Cicinelli joins the executive team as manager of human resources, budgeting and office management.


Under the direction of Anne Larson and Dr. John Lavis, IWH’s associate research director, research transfer is established as a core business of the Institute, alongside research. The predecessor of today’s Knowledge Transfer and Exchange (KTE) Department is born.


Dr. Fraser Mustard steps down as the inaugural chair of the Institute and a Mustard Fellowship in Work Environment and Health, a two-year post-doctoral fellowship, is established in his honour.

IWH co-sponsors an international meeting in Toronto with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIAR) Population Health Program on biological mechanisms linking social environments, life-course experiences and health.

Along with the WSIB, IWH co-hosts the Fourth International Congress on Medical-Legal Aspects of Work Injuries, bringing together 600 delegates from over 20 countries to discuss and compare approaches to prevention, rehabilitation and compensation.


IWH co-hosts the first North American Summit on Health and Productivity in Toronto, with the U.S. Institute of Health & Productivity Management.

Jane Gibson joins the Institute as the director of research transfer to lead the roll-out of IWHs evidence-based KTE strategy.


The Toronto-based Institute moves from its first home at 250 Bloor St. East to its new home at 481 University Avenue.

IWH helps found the Canadian Association for Researchers on Work and Health (CARWH) to provide a national voice for researchers interested in work and health.

IWH sets up its first Educationally Influential (EI) network—for physiotherapists. EI networks for physicians, chiropractors, occupational therapists and ergonomists soon follow.


After three years in the role of scientific director, Dr. Cam Mustard becomes president of the Institute for Work & Health.

S. Leonard Syme Research Training Fellowships for new researchers at the master’s or doctoral level are created to recognize the contributions of the long-time SAC chair.

The report of the second five-year (1997-2001) external review panel assessing IWH’s work finds that IWH “has evolved into a mature and impressive research institute with an international reputation,” producing and publishing “research of the highest quality’ and creating a multidisciplinary environment that is “rare and extremely attractive to senior scientists, emerging researchers and students alike.”


Dr. Tony Culyer, a well-known health economist, assumes the role of chief scientist at IWH.

The Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Advisory Committee meets for the first time. It is tasked with providing advice and feedback to the Institute’s KTE team on the quality, impact and approaches of its stakeholder engagement and communications programs.

IWH hosts the first Alf Nachemson Memorial lecture to honour the orthopaedic surgeon’s significant contributions to the use of research evidence in clinical decision-making.


The Institute sets up its formal Systematic Review Program, capitalizing on its original research and expertise into the methods of conducting systematic reviews.


The Research Action Alliance on the Consequences of Work Injury brings together academics and injured workers in a five-year research project to scientifically document the effects of work injury.


Dr. Ben Amick, from the University of Texas School of Public Health, joins the Institute as its scientific director.

The report of the third five-year (1992-2006) external review panel assessing IWH’s work notes “the remarkable progress over the past five years growing the prevention emphasis in the Institute’s work, strengthening the knowledge transfer activity across the full range of research projects, and expanding collaborations with a broad range of stakeholders, in particular Ontario’s health and safety associations.”


The Institute gets a make-over, with a new logo, an updated website and a redesigned At Work newsletter.


IWH hosts the sixth CARWH conference, bringing together about 220 academics, policy-makers, employers, union representatives and injured worker advocates with a shared interest in the latest research on work and health.


A one-time assistant deputy minister in the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Dr. Ron Saunders becomes the Institute’s director of knowledge transfer and exchange on top of the senior scientist position he assumed when he joined IWH in 2009.


The Institute hosts an international Financial Incentive Symposium on the challenges of workplace injury prevention through financial incentives, including experience rating.

Dr. Monique Gignac, co-scientific director of the Canadian Arthritis Network, joins IWH’s executive team as associate scientific director.

The report of the fourth five-year (2007-2011) external review, conducted this time by the SAC, says IWH plays “a unique and vital role in research and education” and that “there are no comparable institutions in North America.”


The Province of Ontario becomes IWH’s core funder, taking over from the WSIB, which had supported the Institute up to this time.


Institute scientists formally launch the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy, a seven-year research initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to look at the future of work disability policy in Canada


IWH hosts the Ninth International Scientific Conference on the Prevention of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (PREMUS 2016), attracting about 400 researchers and practitioners from around the world to Toronto to discuss and share the latest research on MSD prevention and management in the workplace.

With the Occupational Cancer Research Centre, IWH co-hosts the ninth CARWH conference, showcasing the latest research in work and health.


In September 2017, the XXI World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Singapore comes to a close, and the torch is passed to IWH and Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety to co-host the XXII World Congress in Toronto in October 2020.


Dr. Peter Smith, a senior scientist at IWH, joins the executive team as associate scientific director.

The Institute launches a redesigned and restructured website.


Cindy Moser, who joined the IWH's communications team in 2008, becomes a member of the executive team as director of communications. Dr. Monique Gignac and Dr. Peter Smith, already members of the executive team, become scientific co-directors.


In mid-March, days after the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a global pandemic, Institute staff begin working from home.

The original October 2020 date for the XXII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, being co-hosted nationally by IWH, is pushed forward to September 2021 due to the pandemic.

During the summer months, after nearly 20 years in its Toronto office at 481 University Avenue, the Institute moves down the road to 400 University Avenue.


In April, Derek Wills joins the executive team as director of human resources and corporate services (overseeing human resources, finance and facility management).

On September 20-23, the Institute co-hosts the XXII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work—the first virtual version of the international event in the Congress's history. Almost 2,000 policy-makers and professionals from the global occupational health and safety community join the four-day event, which is praised for its rich content and innovative online connectivity.


In January, Dr. Peter Smith is appointed president of the Institute for Work & Health. His appointment follows on the retirement of Dr. Cameron Mustard, who was IWH president for 20 years. 

In September, Morgan Lay joins the Institute as its director of strategic relations, a new role on the IWH executive team.


In May, Cindy Moser retires from her role as Director of Communications. Also in May, IWH and McMaster University launch Inclusive Design for Employment Access (IDEA). IDEA is a social innovation laboratory, supported with funding from the federal Tri-Agency, with the aim of building employer capacity to hire and promote persons with disabilities.

In September, Dr. Arif Jetha is named Associate Scientific Director and joins the executive team.

In December, the Institute publishes its final issue of the quarterly newsletter At Work.