Grant round-up: Preventing physical and mental health injuries a focus among externally funded IWH studies

Published: July 2024

At the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), scientists continue to respond to emerging work and health research questions and identify new opportunities to help users of research integrate evidence into their practice. Below is a snapshot of just a few of many the studies underway, with support from external grants awarded between September 2022 and May 2024.

Exploring how daily patterns of sleep and activity affect the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality among Canadian workers

Physical activity has been extensively shown to reduce chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature mortality. Accordingly, the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines recommend that adults “move more, reduce sedentary time, and sleep well” for optimal health. What they don’t address is whether the context in which you are active matters, which, as a previous IWH study suggests, it might. That study found that, while physical activity is generally beneficial to one’s health, high physical activity during work may be linked to increased risk of early death and cardiovascular disease.

That’s why Dr. Avi Biswas, IWH scientist, is leading a project to examine how patterns of activity throughout an entire, 24-hour day are linked to the risk of cardiovascular disease and deaths from all causes. To do this study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the research team will link data from five cycles of the Canadian Health Measures Survey—which includes measures of physical activity and sleep patterns—to health records. The research team will examine the relationships between different activity patterns and health outcomes, comparing workers with the general population. The team will also explore how links between 24-hour activity patterns and cardiovascular disease and early death vary for workers with different exposures to psychologically and physically demanding jobs.

The findings from this research can tell us whether some patterns of physical activity at work may be hazardous to workers’ health, as well as help to identify activity patterns that are practical for workers to follow throughout their entire day to optimize their health, says Biswas.

Understanding how new businesses start managing OHS: Laying the groundwork for future interventions

About 100,000 new businesses are created each year in Canada. Most new businesses start out as small businesses, which have been shown to carry higher risks of injuries and fatalities. New businesses integrating occupational health and safety (OHS) practices early in their development may help prevent these avoidable incidents more effectively—but many small businesses lack the knowledge and/or resources to do so.

Through a survey and interviews with new business owners, this project aims to understand small businesses’ knowledge, capabilities, motivations and opportunities for initiating OHS management. The study, led by IWH Scientists Dr. Lynda Robson and Dr. Basak Yanar, is guided by an advisory committee of small business experts and funded by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

This research is timely because there has been a recent push by OHS system partners in Ontario to reach small businesses early in their life cycle, says Robson. We want to understand what new business owners know about OHS, their attitudes toward learning more, and how and why some owners become capable in OHS management early on.

The knowledge we gain from this study can help to design interventions to best assist new businesses with OHS management, and to help prevent work-related injuries, illnesses and fatalities, says Yanar.

Assessing the psychosocial work environment in British Columbia to inform prevention activities

In September 2023, WorkSafeBC, the worker’s compensation organization in British Columbia (B.C.), launched its Mental Health Strategy, aimed at supporting workers and employers in building psychologically safe and healthy workplaces. In order to plan and target prevention activities that should be part of this strategy, WorkSafeBC first needs to take stock of the province’s current psychosocial work environment—that is, the psychological and social aspects of work and workplaces.

WorkSafeBC has funded this project, led by IWH President and Senior Scientist Dr. Peter Smith, to help it understand how both the psychosocial environment physical hazards may influence a worker’s risk of physical and mental health injuries. By surveying a sample of B.C. workers, the researchers will develop a baseline assessment of both the psychosocial work environment across various groups of workers in B.C., and of workers’ awareness of the psychosocial work environment as a workplace hazard.

This comprehensive overview of the psychosocial safety climate in B.C. will allow us to identify worker populations that WorkSafeBC should target with prevention efforts as part of their mental health strategy, says Smith. It can also help identify where prevention activities targeting aspects of both the physical and psychosocial environment may be most impactful. Moving forward, WorkSafeBC will also be able to use this baseline to monitor the impact of activities undertaken as part of the strategy.