Workers with disabilities report greater hazard exposure and lower protection

OHS vulnerability study finds people with disabilities report inadequate policies and low empowerment​

Published: November 3, 2017

People with disabilities have a tough time getting hired, research elsewhere has shown. A new study now suggests that, when they do find jobs, they may be more vulnerable to workplace health and safety risks than their peers without disabilities.​

The study, conducted by a team at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), found workers with disabilities were more likely to be exposed to hazards at work than other workers. What’s more, they were also more likely to report a combination of hazard exposure and inadequate occupational health and safety (OHS) protection.​

This combination of more exposure to hazards and less adequate protection from them led the IWH research team to conclude that people with disabilities may be more vulnerable to risk of work injury. The conclusion is based upon a concept of vulnerability developed by IWH and embodied in a tool called the OHS Vulnerability Measure.​

The tool assesses exposure to hazards, as well as three types of protections from these hazards: organizational policies and practices; awareness of OHS rights and responsibilities; and empowerment (to speak up about dangerous work, for example).

In the study, the team found people with disabilities were more likely to be exposed to hazards. They were also more likely to report two types of inadequate protection: inadequate OHS policies and procedures and inadequate OHS empowerment.

To my knowledge, this is the first study to look at potential hazards and unsafe working conditions among people with disabilities, says Dr. Curtis Breslin, an IWH scientist and lead author of an article on the study that was published online in May 2017, in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation (doi:10.1080/09638288.2017.1327985).​

This study supports the idea that there’s some kind of sorting effect, where people with disabilities tend to have jobs with more hazards than their peers without disabilities, says Breslin. It’s also possible that they have limited job choices, which is consistent with the data showing that the people with disabilities in our study worked more often in part-time and temporary jobs.

A representative sample​

The study was conducted as part of a larger project on the OHS Vulnerability Measure. In April and September 2015, nearly 2,000 workers in Ontario and British Columbia completed the OHS Vulnerability Measure. This sample was weighted to resemble the age and gender profile of the labour market in the two provinces. Respondents who reported a work-related physical or mental injury or illness in the previous 12 months were excluded from the sample.

Excluding workers who had work injuries in the past year helps rule out the possibility that sustaining an injury influenced their report of OHS vulnerability, says Breslin. We hypothesized that experiencing a work injury would lead to increased perceptions of vulnerability, so we wanted to err on the conservative side.​

Respondents were asked whether a long-term physical or mental condition or health problem reduced the amount or kind of activity they could do at work. Based on the answers to this question, respondents were considered never activity-limited, sometimes activity-limited or often activity-limited—all referring to activity limitations at work.​

More than half of the people who were sometimes or often activity-limited at work due to a long-term health condition were exposed to hazards at work (52 and 54 per cent, respectively), compared to 41 per cent of people who were never activity-limited at work by a long-term health condition.

When compared to respondents who were never activity-limited at work by a long-term health condition, people who were sometimes or often activity-limited were 66 to 70 per cent more likely to report vulnerability due to being exposed to hazards in combination with inadequate policies and procedures. Respondents who were sometimes or often activity-limited at work due to a long-term health condition were also nearly twice as likely to be vulnerable due to hazard exposure and lack of empowerment.​

Few differences across limitation levels​

Notably, the team did not see many differences in vulnerability scores when comparing people who were sometimes and people who were often activity-limited.​

That tells us any level of activity limitation can be associated with greater exposure to hazards and limited access to OHS resources, says Breslin. It may be that a moderate level of activity limitation is also less visible to others, making it difficult to accommodate. But we would need further research to test this idea.​

As already noted, respondents who had experienced a work-related injury were excluded from the study. Had their responses been included, a stronger link between activity limitation and OHS vulnerability scores would have been found, says Breslin.​

What I find interesting about these findings is that they suggest individual susceptibilities such as health impairments interact with workplace OHS vulnerabilities, Breslin adds. Changing workplace factors needs to be the primary focus, but we also need to be aware of unique individual differences that potentially require a tailored approach to injury prevention as well.​