Distinct types of OHS vulnerability seen in young, temporary, small business employees

Tool developed by IWH measures three types of vulnerability to workplace health and safety risk

Published: November 10, 2015

Young workers, temporary workers and small business employees are often called vulnerable workers, but a new study from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) has found that they are not all vulnerable to work injury and illness in the same ways.

The study used a new occupational health and safety (OHS) vulnerability questionnaire developed by the Institute. The 27-item* measure asks respondents about their exposure to workplace hazards and the presence of three types of protection: (1) workplace policies and procedures; (2) worker awareness of OHS hazards, rights and responsibilities; and (3) worker empowerment to participate in injury prevention. The tool considers workers to be vulnerable to injury and illness when they’re exposed to hazards at work and inadequate protection in at least one of the three areas.

The underlying idea of the tool is that workers are vulnerable only if they’re exposed to hazards. But vulnerability is more than just being exposed to hazards alone, says Dr. Peter Smith, an IWH senior scientist and the lead researcher on the team that developed the measure.

Hazards are an intrinsic part of the work in many industries and occupations. It’s when workers are exposed to hazards and also lack one of these other types of protection that they become vulnerable, he adds.

This gives rise to three types of vulnerability, as assessed by the tool: policy and procedure vulnerability (exposure to hazards and inadequate policies and procedures); awareness vulnerability (exposure to hazards and low awareness of OHS rights and responsibilities); and empowerment vulnerability (exposure to hazards and lack of empowerment to participate in injury prevention).

Using this measure on a sample of 1,835 workers in Ontario and British Columbia, the latest research found the following:

Compared to workers 45 to 54 years of age, workers younger than 35 had an increased probability of experiencing all three types of vulnerability.

People in temporary contracts were more likely to experience vulnerability with respect to awareness and empowerment, but not policies and procedures.

Employees working in small businesses (with five to 19 employees) were more likely than workers from large businesses (with 500-plus employees) to experience policy and procedure and awareness vulnerability, but not empowerment vulnerability.

With this tool, we were able to assess whether different groups of ‘vulnerable’ workers were vulnerable in the same ways, says Morgan Lay, a research associate at IWH and author of the study, which was published online in October as an open-access paper by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (doi:10.1002/ajim.22535).

More than a third of respondents experienced some kind of vulnerability, Lay says. She also points to the following findings about the three types of vulnerability:

  • Policy and procedure vulnerability was the most common, with 27 per cent of the workers experiencing this type. Empowerment vulnerability was seen in 22 per cent of the workers, and awareness vulnerability in 14 per cent.
  • Policy and procedure vulnerability was more than three times higher among employees in very small workplaces (those with five to 19 employees) than among employees at large firms (500 employees or more). This type of vulnerability was 1.8 times higher among workers under 35 years of age compared to those 45-54 years old.
  • Awareness vulnerability was 2.5 times higher for those born outside Canada than for those born in Canada. Temporary workers were 1.9 times more likely than people in permanent jobs to experience awareness vulnerability. People working for small (20 to 99 employees) and very small (five to 19) employers were both 1.8 times more likely to experience this type of vulnerability than large organizations.
  • Empowerment vulnerability was 1.6 times more likely among temporary workers than permanent employees, and 1.4 times more likely among workers under 35 years of age than those 45-54 years old.

To date much of the targeting of vulnerable workers has focused on specific groups such as young workers, new workers or immigrants, says Lay. What our tool adds is information on the source of vulnerability, what types of targeted changes could be made, and if these needed changes are different across groups.

The team is now working on linking scores on this tool to injury rates. If that research bears fruit, this 27-item measure has the potential to become a leading indicator tool for use at both the workplace and systems levels, says Smith.

To find out more about the tool, or to access the questionnaire and the scoring instructions, go to: www.iwh.on.ca/at-work/80/what-makes-workers-vulnerable. The journal article on the tool development is available as an open-access paper in Accident Analysis & Prevention (doi:10.1016/j.aap.2015.06.004).

* The measure still contains 29 items, as we reported in an earlier article and sidebar about the measure, but two questions about fatigue and pain are not scored for the purpose of assessing hazards.