OHS vulnerability among new immigrants

In brief

  • Recent immigrant workers are 1.6 times more likely than Canadian-born workers to experience occupational health and safety (OHS) vulnerability, defined as exposure to hazards without adequate protection to mitigate those hazards.
  • Newcomers are exposed to hazards significantly more often than non-immigrants, with 66.1 per cent of recent immigrants reporting hazard exposure, compared to just half 50.1 per cent of Canadian-born workers.
  • The OHS vulnerability experienced by recent immigrants results from exposure to hazards combined with inadequate workplace OHS policies and procedures, or exposure to hazards combined with inadequate levels of empowerment to protect themselves in the workplace.

Published: August 2018

Why was this study done?

Recent immigrants to Canada experience poorer labour market outcomes such as lower employment levels, lower income levels, poorer job quality, and higher risk of work injury. Thus, they are often considered “vulnerable workers.” However, the term “vulnerable workers” conveys the idea that these outcomes, including higher injury risks, are associated with unchangeable factors about them as a group and does little to identify the workplace risk factors that can change. This study set out to measure vulnerability to work-related injuries and illnesses among recent immigrants, using a tool that defines vulnerability as a combination of exposure to hazards and inadequate protections to lessen the impact of these hazards.

How was the study done?

To measure vulnerability, the research team used the OHS Vulnerability Measure, a 27-item questionnaire developed by the Institute for Work & Health.  The questionnaire measures exposure to hazards as well as protections in three areas: workplace health and safety policies and procedures; awareness of OHS rights and responsibilities; and workers’ empowerment to protect themselves (for example, by voicing concerns or refusing unsafe work). Workers are defined as vulnerable when they have hazard exposures combined with inadequate levels of one of the three protections.

The research team recruited 195 recent immigrants at four settlement agencies in southern Ontario from August to October 2015 and asked them to complete the OHS Vulnerability Measure. For the non-immigrant control sample, the team used 1,095 responses from a larger research project examining OHS vulnerability in Ontario and British Columbia conducted in April and May 2014.

What did the researchers find?

Recent immigrants reported hazard exposure significantly more often than non-immigrants: two thirds (66.1 per cent) of recent immigrants reported hazard exposure, compared to just half (50.1 per cent) of the non-immigrant sample. Overall vulnerability is defined as hazard exposure as well as inadequate protection in any of the three areas. Although recent immigrants were no different from Canadian-born respondents in levels of protection, the higher hazard exposure results in recent immigrants being more likely to experience overall vulnerability (45.5 per cent versus 30.3 per cent among non-immigrants). They were more likely than non-immigrants to experience OHS vulnerability due to hazard exposure and inadequate policies and procedures (31.4 per cent versus 23.5 per cent) and to hazard exposure and low empowerment (37.6 per cent versus 22.9 per cent). There was no significant difference between immigrants and non-immigrants when it came to vulnerability due to OHS awareness (14.1 versus 12.5).

After differences in age, sex and education were taken into account, recent immigrants were 1.51 times more likely than Canadian-born workers to experience overall vulnerability. They were 1.37 times more likely than Canadian-born workers to experience vulnerability due to inadequate empowerment; and 1.43 times more likely to experience vulnerability due to inadequate policies and procedures.

Differences in vulnerability between new immigrants and Canadian-born workers were not explained by taking into account the different types of jobs worked by respondents or their different levels of union representation. In fact, overall vulnerability and empowerment vulnerability were slightly more likely among immigrants when these workplace factors were taken into consideration (1.60 for overall vulnerability and 1.54 for empowerment vulnerability).

Discussion of implications

Recent immigrant workers experienced significantly higher levels of empowerment vulnerability and overall vulnerability than non-immigrant workers. These differences persisted even between immigrant workers and Canadian-born workers in similar types of jobs.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

A strength of this study was its access to new immigrants, usually a hard-to-reach population for researchers. However, the experiences of new immigrants who seek out services at settlement agencies cannot be generalized to all immigrants in Canada. A weakness of this study was that both the immigrant and non-immigrant samples were made up of people who volunteered to take part in the study; as such, they may be over-represented by people who had negative experiences with workplace health and safety. As the study was not designed to examine what specific aspects of the immigration or work context led to the observed differences, a follow-up qualitative study by researchers at IWH is trying to better understand these factors.