What research can do: IWH research helps prevention system shift focus from young to new workers

Thanks to IWH research, Ontario’s prevention partners no longer refer to the issue of “young worker safety” but to the larger issue of “young and new worker safety” or, simply, “new worker safety.”

Published: July 31, 2019

You know research has had an impact when it changes the language used to frame an issue, and the findings become so ubiquitous they are considered part of the “common wisdom”—so much so that citing the source is no longer considered necessary. The Institute for Work & Health (IWH)’s research on injury rates among new workers has had this effect.

As early as 2003, IWH reported the findings of one of its scientists, Dr. Curtis Breslin, that all workers, regardless of age, were at a much greater risk of injury in the first month on the job. In 2006, he and a fellow scientist, Dr. Peter Smith, authored a paper published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine that outlined their findings about the significantly increased risk of injuries among people new to their job.

In 2013, Breslin and Smith authored another paper published in OEM that updated this research and looked at injury rates over a 10- year period. They found that injury risk among new workers remained consistently high, with workers in their first month on the job having three times the risk of a lost-time injury as workers with over a year’s job experience.

MOL changes focus from ‘young’ to ‘new’

Over the years, these findings made people in Ontario’s occupational health and safety prevention system sit up and take notice. The Ministry of Labour was one of them.

For example, in July 2004, the Ministry of Labour announced it was beefing up its enforcement strategy, mentioning that one of its aims was to increase workplace awareness of injury risk, with a special emphasis on young workers. New workers were not mentioned.

Four years later, that had changed. In 2008, the Ministry introduced a new enforcement strategy that included “blitzing” Ontario workplaces to eliminate health and safety hazards, concentrating on workplaces with workers aged 24 and under as well as those employing workers of any age who were new to their jobs.

Wayne Del’Orme confirms that IWH’s research was behind the change. We changed the wording [from ‘young’ to ‘new and young’] because of that [IWH] study, says Del’Orme, who was the provincial coordinator of the Industrial Program within the MOL’s Occupational Health and Safety Branch from 2006 to 2010, the period during which the change was made.

As Del’Orme explains, When we saw that new workers were at the same risk as young workers, we asked, ‘Okay, what is the commonality among these groups?’ We believed it was time on the job rather than age, which meant we needed to rethink our previous understanding about the cause of increased injury rates among young people.

The focus on young and new workers continues to this day. In a news release dated July 15, 2019, the Ontario Ministry of Labour announced its annual summer inspection blitz to support new and young worker safety. The Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton was quoted in the release, saying [n]ew workers are three times more likely to be injured during their first month on the job. That’s why we’re doing this. Families should expect that when their sons and daughters go to work each day, they’ll come home safely.

Today, government bodies, OHS professional groups, and OHS and human resources publications generally accept it as common knowledge that it’s new workers, which includes young workers new to the workforce or new to a job, who are at increased risk of work injury. The Institute’s research played a key role in shaping that shared wisdom. As Wayne Del’Orme comments, This was landmark research, and it did have an impact.

This column is based on an IWH impact case study, published in December 2015, available at: www.iwh.on.ca/impact-case-studies.