Grant round-up: A selection of new studies supported by external grants in 2020-21

Opioid-related harms and workers, PTSI support for first responders among research funded

Published: August 18, 2021

Researchers at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) rely on funding support to examine emerging questions at the intersection of work and health. The Institute is supported by core funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. But it also draws on other funding agencies and programs to further explore injury and disability prevention issues.

Understanding the use of cannabis to treat work-related conditions

Interest is growing in the potential medical benefits of cannabis to treat work-related conditions. Yet, we know virtually nothing about patterns of cannabis use among injured workers. In a new research project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), IWH Associate Scientist Dr. Nancy Carnide and Senior Scientist Dr. Peter Smith are tapping into a sample of 1,200 Ontario workers who had been part of an earlier IWH study on health and work outcomes following a work-related injury. In this new study, Carnide’s team will conduct follow-up interviews focused on the use of cannabis to treat work-related conditions.

The study aims to identify the factors workers consider in deciding whether to use cannabis and to seek medical authorization and reimbursement for its use. The team will also examine changes over time in patterns of use and authorization, as well as associations between use and long-term indicators of recovery such as return to work, pain, mental health and sleep. 

Monitoring opioid-related harms among Ontario workers

In 2016, the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) launched the Occupational Disease Surveillance System (ODSS), a unique system that draws on linkages between provincial health-care databases and workers’ compensation claims information. Designed to identify groups of workers whose occupations may have higher exposure to substances or conditions that increase the risk of occupational illness, the ODSS can be used to investigate numerous cancers and non-malignant diseases across hundreds of occupational and industry groups. 

In a new project collaboration, a team co-led by IWH’s Carnide and OCRC Director Dr. Paul Demers is using the ODSS to monitor patterns of opioid use and opioid-related harms among injured workers. The research, funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, will capture current trends in opioid-related hospitalizations and emergency department visits. The results of this research will help inform targeted prevention and opioid harm reduction activities. As part of this project, we hope to develop an interactive data-visualization platform, says Carnide. It will allow members of the public to generate customized reports of the findings for different worker subgroups.

Supporting first responders after a post-traumatic stress injury

Studies conducted to date estimate that between eight and 23 per cent of first responders experience a post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI). However, little is known about how workplaces can support first responders in returning to work following a PTSI. Although studies have shown that the return-to-work process is similar for physical and mental health conditions, psychological injuries that arise from work exposure may require different strategies. 

In a study funded by Alberta’s Supporting Psychological Health in First Responders program, IWH Scientist Dr. Dwayne Van Eerd and IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa are synthesizing the existing research literature on workplace policies and practices to prevent work disability following PTSI. The team is using a method developed at the Institute, which integrates systematic review findings with current organizational practices and policies. Considering practice evidence ensures that perspectives of key stakeholders, such as first responder staff and supervisors, are included in the evidence synthesis, says Van Eerd. In synthesizing the best available evidence about organizational policies and practices, we hope to provide policy and practice recommendations for first responder organizations. 

Exploring sex/gender differences in work-related communicable disease exposure

Do men and women within the same occupations have different exposures to workplace-acquired communicable diseases? Although women make up nearly half the Canadian labour force, much of our understanding of work exposures is still male-centric. Social (gender) and biological (sex) differences can affect men and women in different ways when it comes to the risks of workplace-acquired communicable diseases. Social factors may include the types of jobs and industries in which men and women work, differences in their levels of compliance to infection control measures or the availability of personal protective equipment that is designed for both men and women. Biological factors such as differences in immunity to infections can also affect how men and women are exposed to communicable diseases in their workplaces.

A team led by IWH Associate Scientist Dr. Aviroop Biswas is conducting a systematic review focused on differences between men and women in the same occupations or industries. There can be a perception that sex/gender differences in work-related communicable diseases do not exist or that, if they exist, they’re due to the representation of men and women in certain jobs and industries, says Biswas. By comparing work-related disease exposures for men and women in the same occupations, we hope our research can inform where potential inequalities exist in prevention practices and policies.