In all Canadian jurisdictions, legislated employment standards set minimum working conditions and basic entitlements regarding pay, vacation, sick days, work breaks and more. Although people whose workplaces or jobs fail to meet these standards are thought to be vulnerable workers, a lack of these standards is not typically thought to cause a greater risk of being injured or getting sick due to work.
A new study at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) now suggests that inadequate employment standards are a risk factor for work-related injuries. The study found consistent and statistically significant differences in injury outcomes between survey participants who experienced adequate employment standards overall and those who didn’t. For example, self-reported physical injuries were more common among workers who didn’t have regular pay, meal breaks, paid vacation or paid sick leave.
What’s more, the study found the risk of injury was higher when inadequate employment standards overlapped with occupational health and safety (OHS) vulnerability. Here, the study used the definition of OHS vulnerability developed at the Institute. Under this definition, workers are considered to experience OHS vulnerability when they are exposed to hazards at work and lack at least one (or any combination) of three types of protection: health and safety policies, awareness of OHS rights, and individual empowerment to take preventive measures.
“Past research at IWH found that workers who experience OHS vulnerability report higher injury rates. In this study, we wanted to examine the risk of injury associated with inadequate employment standards apart from, and then combined with, inadequate protections from workplace hazards,” says Victoria Nadalin, an IWH research analyst and lead author of the article on the study, published online in July 2021 by the journal Safety and Health at Work (doi:10.1016/j.shaw.2021.07.002). “By combining the two types of risk, we were looking to see if there was a super-additive—or synergistic—effect.”
The team did find occupational health and safety vulnerability and inadequate employment standards were each associated on their own with increased injury outcomes. Workers reporting inadequate employment standards alone were at an increased risk of workplace injury. Workers reporting OHS vulnerability alone were at an even higher risk of injury.
The team also found a synergistic effect. That is, when workers reported both types of vulnerability—inadequate employment standards and OHS vulnerability—their risk of injury was greater than it was among those reporting just one type of vulnerability alone, and five times greater than among those reporting neither type of vulnerability.
While only 14 per cent of the study participants reported both OHS vulnerability and inadequate employment standards, Nadalin notes that nearly half of this group (46 per cent) reported being injured or sick due to work in the previous 12 months.
“The super-additive effect that experiencing both inadequate employment standards and a lack of OHS protection has on injury rates is an important finding, given the fact that a proportion of workers experience both together,” she says.
Senior Scientist Dr. Peter Smith, who led the study, concurs that the takeaway is the need to understand that the risk of these inadequacies can combine to cause greater risk of injury.
“When people refer to vulnerable workers, they are often not specific about whether they are referring to OHS vulnerability or another type of vulnerability like inadequate employment standards,” he says.
“While these two types of vulnerability don’t always occur together, when they do, our study showed their combined association with work injury outcomes appears to be synergistic. That is, they are associated with a higher-than-expected risk of work injury—higher than the association of either inadequate employment standards and OHS vulnerability on its own. This synergistic effect suggests that employment standards should be part of what’s considered when assessing a workplace’s OHS program.”
How the study was done
The study is based on surveys conducted in Ontario and British Columbia in the fall of 2017, and in Alberta in the spring of 2018.
Eligible participants were people aged 18 years or older who worked at least 15 hours a week in workplaces with five or more employees. The sample of nearly 3,000 workers was primarily drawn from an existing panel of people willing to be contacted for surveys. To test this sample for potential selection bias, 10 per cent of the sample was recruited via random phone dialing.
The surveyed workers were asked five questions about employment standards: In the last 12 months, has your employer ever failed to pay you the wages you are due? Do you have a regular payday? Do you have the right to paid vacation? Do you have the right to paid sick leave? In your job, how often do you work more than five hours without a meal break?
Study participants were also asked to complete IWH’s validated 27-item OHS Vulnerability Measure, which includes questions about nine common workplace hazards, as well as questions about the three types of OHS protection: OHS policies and practices, OHS awareness and OHS empowerment.
Workers were considered vulnerable if they said they were exposed weekly or daily to two or more hazards or one key hazard, and if they disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were protected by one or more of the three types of OHS protection. Study participants were also asked whether they had a work-related injury or illness in the previous 12 months, either physical or psychological, and whether they missed work due to the injury or illness.