Grant round-up: Exploring the impact of AI, recovery and work after COVID, and more

A snapshot of some of the studies underway at IWH, thanks to new external grant awards

Published: August 8, 2022

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 2021 and June 2022.

Exploring the impact of artificial intelligence on health and safety and worker inequities

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming workplaces—and how and to what extent are some of the most crucial questions facing policy-makers, employers and workers. Many economists consider this technology to have the potential to upend current work practices not unlike the advent of electricity, the steam engine or personal computers. In a pair of studies, IWH Scientist Dr. Arif Jetha is leading research teams that are examining the potential impact of AI in two contexts: 1) Ontario’s occupational health and safety (OHS) system more narrowly; and 2) worker inequity in the Canadian labour force more generally.

In the first study, funded by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), Jetha’s research team is outlining the different uses of AI in OHS. Potential examples include AI-enhanced wearables that monitor a worker’s movement or physical environment for injury prevention purposes, and apps designed to detect signals of psychosocial hazards in employee email and text correspondence. Through focus groups with OHS system stakeholders, it is also evaluating the suitability of these AI applications in the prevention of work-related injury and promotion of recovery and return to work in Ontario, and the potential ethical and other implications of their use.

This study is one of the first to comprehensively examine and categorize different AI applications and their implications for OHS and work disability management, says Jetha. We hope to help stakeholders in Ontario’s OHS system better understand the strengths and weaknesses of various AI applications, and to help build awareness among workers and organized labour representatives about the potential implications of AI applications for workers, based on their work environments and job characteristics.

The second study—on the impact of AI on worker inequities—is a three-year partnership development grant funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. This study is laying a lot of groundwork for future research on the labour force effects of AI. The study objectives include: developing a framework for understanding how workplace AI applications affect working conditions and contribute to worker inequities; developing a process to estimate and identify the segments of the Canadian workforce that stand to be most affected by AI; reviewing existing public policies and programs to determine the extent to which they address the growing application of AI and, in particular, support workers who are most vulnerable; and building a knowledge base and research capacity to engage in ongoing research at the nexus between work, equity and AI.

This is a novel area of research, and an important part of this project will be agenda-setting, says Jetha. Our aim is to offer recommendations for future research directions that will help stakeholders better understand the impact AI applications can have on workers and to innovate strategies to address emerging worker vulnerabilities.

Understanding the long-term outcomes of workers with COVID-19 claims

By early 2022, Ontario’s WSIB had accepted more than 31,000 workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19. What are the long-term health and labour market outcomes of workers who made these claims? How well do they recover physically? How do they fare mentally? And what is the process by which they return to the workplace where their infection occurred?

In a study funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Dr. Peter Smith, IWH senior scientist and president, is leading a team to answer these questions and more. The team is collecting survey data about 18 months after study participants’ initial COVID-19 work absence, and will use this information to examine claimants’ experiences and outcomes such as depression, anxiety, physical function, self-rated health and return-to-work status.

We are interested in comparing the experiences of workers with work-related COVID claims with those of workers with other types of compensation claims, says Smith. Findings from this project will provide a much-needed knowledge base for workplaces and workers’ compensation agencies to better understand and address the impacts of COVID-19 among workers in Canada.

Building health-care providers’ capacity to treat first responders using the ECHO model

Public safety workers such as paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and border services and corrections personnel experience mental health symptoms at higher rates than the general working population. Health-care providers who treat these workers understand that work-related traumatic exposures can be an important factor driving mental health difficulties in this worker population. What can be overlooked, however, are the other sources of workplace strain.

These include working conditions such as work hours and staffing structures, organizational culture, and negative public perception and scrutiny. We know about the stigma around mental health issues and the reluctance to seek help among public safety workers and first responders. It’s critical that, when they do reach out for help, their health-care providers understand the unique characteristics of their jobs and work culture, says Dr. Andrea Furlan, a scientist at IWH.

That’s why she and Dr. Nadia Aleem of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health are leading a new Project ECHO (Extension for Community Health-care Outcomes) tele-mentoring pilot. Hosted by IWH, this ECHO is focusing on Ontario health-care providers who support or treat public safety workers with a work-related injury or illness. Funded by WSIB, it follows on the heels of another ECHO pilot at IWH that focused on occupational and environmental medicine, which Furlan also co-led.

There is no Project ECHO with this focus anywhere in the world, says Furlan. It is our hope that this model will have long-term impact in improving health providers’ confidence and competence in working with public safety workers in their recovery and return to work.