The protection of vulnerable workers is a key priority of the Ontario Ministry of Labour. This has especially been the case since the Expert Advisory Panel on Occupational Health and Safety released its report in December 2010, which included a chapter and four recommendations devoted to better protecting vulnerable workers. The Panel, which was set up by the Ministry earlier that year to review the province’s workplace health and safety system, defined “vulnerable workers” as those who have “a greater exposure than most workers to conditions hazardous to health or safety and who lack the power to alter those conditions.”
In response to these recommendations, the MOL released a prevention strategy in December 2013 that included a plan to “conduct research and seek evidence-based advice to help develop a comprehensive definition of vulnerability and create a vulnerability risk framework.” The evidence-based framework that the Ministry eventually adopted was one created by an Institute for Work & Health (IWH) research team led by Scientist Dr. Peter Smith.
Smith and his team developed a method for measuring occupational health and safety (OHS) vulnerability that expands on the Expert Advisory Panel’s definition. At the outset, the team recognized the need to go beyond demographic (e.g. age, gender, immigrant status) or other groupings of vulnerable workers (e.g. workers whose employment is precarious, racialized workers) to better understand the factors that underlie an individual’s vulnerability to an increased risk of work injury or illness By knowing the key drivers behind an enhanced vulnerability to work injury, primary prevention activities can be put in place to address those factors that are modifiable.
The work of the IWH research team to develop a new conceptual framework (and a survey instrument to measure OHS vulnerability) included a review of the research literature, as well as focus groups with workers, employers and policy-makers. The fundamental concept that emerged from this work was that an elevated risk of work injury or illness arises because of greater exposure to occupational hazards, as well as some combination of:
- inadequate workplace policies and procedures to control hazards, encourage communication about OHS or respond to OHS issues, and/or
- lack of worker awareness of hazards and/or of OHS rights and responsibilities, and/or
- a workplace culture that discourages workers to speak up about OHS concerns.
The conceptual framework was shared with officials at MOL in a series of briefings that began in 2014 and continued into 2015. The survey instrument based on this framework, a 27-item questionnaire, was published in the September 2015 edition of Accident Analysis & Prevention. Vulnerability as measured by the survey (exposure to hazards accompanied by a problem in at least one of the other dimensions) has been found to be associated with self-reported injury rates.
In November 2015, MOL released the Occupational Health and Safety in Ontario: 2014-15 Annual Report. The section of the report on vulnerable workers confirmed the adoption of the IWH framework.
The [Ontario prevention] system is using an evidence-based framework developed by the Institute for Work and Health[emphasis in original] to assess the extent to which workers may be vulnerable to occupational health and safety risks at work. The framework assesses vulnerability in four areas: exposure to hazards in the workplace, inadequate workplace policies and procedures, low health and safety awareness of occupational hazards and rights and responsibilities and a workplace culture that discourages worker participation in injury prevention (i.e. lack of worker empowerment). Using this framework, some groups are vulnerable in all four areas, while other groups are more vulnerable in some areas than others.
The survey is available to all as a tool called the OHS Vulnerability Measure that can be downloaded from the IWH website. The tool can be used both at one point in time to measure vulnerability in the labour force or in a single workplace—the subject of a related impact case study, and over time to measure changes in vulnerability before and after a program is introduced. For example, the OHS Vulnerability Measure is being used in an IWH study examining the impact of Ontario’s mandatory awareness training that was introduced in July 2014.