By 2009, Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) was certainly getting the message that its vocational rehabilitation program for injured workers, called Labour Market Re-entry (LMR), was not working as intended. Although bad press and a value-for-money audit drove the point home, evidence from a research project started two years earlier also indicated problems were afoot.
That research was led by Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Scientist Dr. Ellen MacEachen, and it played an important role in shaping the WSIB’s new Work Reintegration Program, introduced in November 2010. The program, which integrates return to work and vocational rehabilitation, addresses many of the problems described by MacEachen’s research.
Study uncovers range of problems
MacEachen’s study, carried out from 2007 to 2009, sought to understand how LMR actually operates for injured workers in Ontario. At the time, the Board’s vocational retraining program offered through LMR was geared to workers who were injured at work and could not return to their former workplace, usually because they had suffered a permanent impairment.
The LMR program’s aim was to help these workers re-enter the labour market, with a different employer, in a job that suited their functional abilities and paid them close to what they were previously earning. This often meant returning to school to get the needed credentials for employment.
The function of placing workers in vocational retraining programs was outsourced to seven firms, whose case managers priced, designed and oversaw an individual worker’s program. Through these programs, workers often ended up at private training schools throughout the province.
Using qualitative research methods, MacEachen and her team conducted interviews and focus groups with 71 people across Ontario who were directly involved with LMR, including workers, employers, educators at schools that provided retraining, case managers from the contracted firms, workers’ compensation staff and worker representatives. The study described a number of problems.
WSIB’s new program tackles issues
Judy Geary, vice-president of work reintegration at WSIB, was a partner in the research and thus privy to the results as they became available. Being the key person responsible for overhauling the return-to-work and vocational rehabilitation system at the WSIB, she wanted to incorporate the research evidence into its design.
The new Workplace Rehabilitation Program (WRP) phased out the use of external LMR service providers and brought case management back inside the Board. Geary traces a number of WRP features to MacEachen’s research. They include:
- more opportunities for choice. Injured workers are given more chances to make their own decisions about their occupation, the nature of their retraining (on-the-job versus school) and, if an academic route is chosen, what type of school they attend. This is directly related to the finding that injured workers felt they were put on treadmills of training programs that they didn’t want to be on, but had to stay on in order to maintain their workers’ compensation benefits.
- more retraining pathways. MacEachen’s research showed that offering just one pathway—the academic route— was a bad fit for many injured workers. Therefore, the new program allows for other options, such as on-the-job training.
- access to community colleges. The problems at private training schools noted by the research—e.g. pushing workers through their programs too quickly, inflating marks in order to make their own success rates look good—led the WSIB to build alliances with the province’s community colleges and give injured workers the option of attending these schools if they prefer.
- placement services. The research emphasized that injured workers faced a lot of barriers and stigma as they searched for work. Therefore, the WSIB now offers 12 weeks of placement services through contracted providers to those not returning to their old employer.
- part-time work. The research showed that the all-or-nothing approach of LMR—full-time work or none at all—did not fit the needs of workers who wanted to work but could only manage limited hours. The new WRP opens up the possibility of part-time employment.
Looking at the role of research, Geary concludes that
the LMR study was instrumental in pointing us in the right directions for the new program.