Supporting settlement agencies to raise OHS awareness among newcomers

A collaboration involving IWH highlights need to fill important knowledge gap in the settlement services sector

Published: April 28, 2020

At a recent focus group led by Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Associate Scientist Dr. Basak Yanar, a newcomer spoke about doing tasks in his construction job that he felt may have put him in danger. At the work I was at, I would find myself in situations where I would say, ‘Why am I doing this? I shouldn’t be doing that, right?’

Another newcomer, a warehousing worker at the same focus group, talked about how he would carry by himself items that were heavy enough to be carried by two people because he was eager to impress his employer with his capabilities. At that time, I had no idea; I didn’t attend any safety and health (training). Nobody advised me. When I fell from a forklift, I didn’t make any complaint because I had no idea, he said.

These stories confirm research conducted in recent years at IWH showing that newcomers have limited knowledge about workplace health and safety and worker rights, and that they’re unsure about how to handle dangerous work situations and what to do if they are injured,” says Yanar. The stories also point to a knowledge gap that settlement service agencies can help fill.

Yanar shared the above anecdotes at an IWH Speaker Series presentation that she delivered in January, alongside Eduardo Huesca of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW). In their presentation, Yanar and Huesca talked about the development, delivery and assessment of capacity-building workshops designed to help settlement service agencies deliver occupational health and safety (OHS) information to newcomers.


Watch the slidecast

The workshops were an initiative of a working group formed in 2018, with representatives of Ontario’s OHS system partners. These included Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD), Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, OHCOW and IWH.

The goal of the working group was to build capacity in the settlement services sector to deliver OHS information to newcomers. Whether in one-off workshops or as part of English-as-a-second-language or job search training, settlement agencies are in a good position to teach newcomers about their OHS rights and responsibilities and how to handle concerns without worrying about job security, Yanar says. However, settlement agency staff may lack the OHS knowledge and resources to support their clients.

As part of the initiative, OHCOW held workshops for about 50 settlement sector staff in Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto. The sessions drew on several system resources, including IWH’s Safe Work Toolkit, as well as training guides, awareness posters and other resources from the MLTSD and WSIB.

See the toolkit

Discussions during the workshops underscored the need for greater resources for the settlement services sector. Participants spoke of a vulnerability among refugees and newcomers, resulting in many being intimidated to raise health and safety concerns. Despite OHS awareness training being mandatory in Ontario, many newcomers were not getting this training, some workshop participants said.

Workshop participants also spoke of a need for resources in different languages or in easier-to-understand formats. Some even found it difficult to find resources in French. Finally, participants also spoke of a demand for resources on certain topics, including mental health and stress, violence and harassment, and OHS for newcomer youths.

The value of the workshops was evaluated in two ways. One was a follow-up survey of attending settlement agency workers conducted about four months after the workshops. Most agency workers who responded said they had delivered the training they received to newcomer clients. They used a variety of learning methods, including slides, lectures, discussions and role-play. Some had hoped for more advanced-level, train-the-trainer workshops. A few still had reservations about presenting the material themselves and opted instead to bring in speakers from the prevention system to present the information, says OHCOW’s Huesca.

The second evaluation was the focus group with newcomers led by Yanar. The focus group with 38 newcomers who took part in the settlement agency training programs confirmed the value of being given OHS and work injury information. The newcomers spoke of having previously received little OHS training at their workplaces and of not knowing what to do when they got hurt. Because of the settlement agency workshops, some said they were more confident about their OHS rights and responsibilities, especially the right to refuse unsafe work and the right to participate in making work safe.

As one focus group participant put it, Before the program, I didn’t know a lot of things I can get involved in. I can also volunteer to become a representative or worker member of joint health and safety committee. And I can always help with health and safety inspection by pointing out possible hazards in the work area.

Overall, capacity-building efforts have led to an increase in service providers’ knowledge of occupational health and safety, says Yanar. Participating settlement agency workers told us that they found the workshop useful and effective in strengthening their OHS knowledge. They now feel more confident answering OHS questions from newcomer clients. They’ve also expressed an interest in continuing to be connected with, and receiving information from, the OHS prevention system.

Moreover, this initiative highlighted how collaboration between Ontario’s OHS system partners and the settlement service sector can be effective in reaching newcomers with key OHS information, says Yanar. The initiative contributes to our understanding of how system resources and supports can be made more accessible and effective in protecting newcomers in their first jobs, she adds. It also identifies opportunities and roles that the Ontario’s OHS system partners can play in further supporting the settlement sector.