Workers with disabilities report greater OHS vulnerability

In brief

  • Workers with disabilities are more likely to be exposed to hazards at work than other workers.
  • They are also more likely to report the combination of hazardous conditions and inadequate occupational health and safety (OHS) protection, particularly in the form of inadequate OHS policies and procedures and inadequate OHS empowerment.

Published: July 2017

Why was this study done?

To our knowledge, no other study has looked at potential hazards and unsafe working conditions among people with disabilities. Using a 27-item worker questionnaire developed by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) to measure vulnerability to risk of work injury, a research team set out to examine the link between OHS vulnerability and disability.

The questionnaire, called the OHS Vulnerability Measure, considers workers vulnerable to an increased risk of work injury when they are exposed to hazards at work and are inadequately protected in at least one of three areas: workplace health and safety policies and procedures; awareness of OHS rights and responsibilities; or empowerment to protect themselves (for example, by voicing concerns or refusing unsafe work).

How was the study done?

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.

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 work-disabled, sometimes work-disabled or often work-disabled.

What did the researchers find?

More than half of the people who were sometimes or often work-disabled were exposed to hazards at work (52 and 54 per cent, respectively), compared to 41 per cent of people who were never work-disabled.

When compared to respondents who were never work-disabled, people who were work-disabled (sometimes or often) were 66 to 70 per cent more likely to report vulnerability due to hazard exposure combined with inadequate policy and procedures.

Respondents who were sometimes or often work-disabled were also nearly twice as likely to be vulnerable due to hazard exposure and lack of empowerment.

For vulnerability due to lack of OHS awareness, a statistically significant link was found for those who were sometimes work-disabled, but not for those who were often work-disabled.

What are the implications of the study?

A large body of research shows that people with disabilities face difficulties taking part in the labour market. This study suggests that those who do find work are more likely to encounter hazards than those without, and they’re more likely to experience vulnerability due to inadequate measures to mitigate those hazards. This higher level of vulnerability may be due to inadequate accommodation and work modification.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

A strength of this study was the use of the OHS vulnerability measure, which has been tested for its measurement properties. A weakness of this study was the lack of specificity on the types of work disability experienced by respondents.

Also, respondents who had experienced a work-related injury were excluded from the study. Statistical analysis showed that had their responses been included, a stronger link between disability and OHS vulnerability scores would have been found.