Workplace safety: Considering factors beyond physical safety

"It is essential that workplaces are safe, healthy and fair."

Rachel Harper - 11 June 2019

What comes to mind when you think about workplace safety? Perhaps the image of hardhats, WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Material Information System) or safety signs. But workplace safety is much more than that.

It is estimated that the average Canadian spends 30 - 40 hours per week at work. So what factors are considered when evaluating and ensuring all workers are safe from illness and injury?

"Most Canadians spend the majority of their time at work, so workplace safety heavily influences our everyday health and well-being both inside and outside of work," explains Natasha Lifeso, recent master of public health in epidemiology graduate. "It is essential that workplaces are safe, healthy and fair."

During her degree program, Lifeso explored the concept of worker vulnerability in the context of workplace safety.

According to Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) there are two priority workforce types that are known to have higher risk of disease and injury at work: small businesses and vulnerable workers. They define vulnerable workers as any individuals who have one or more of the following occupational characteristics:

  • Aged 24 or less
  • Aged 55 or more
  • Indigenous
  • Employed for a short tenure (up to six months temporarily, seasonally or casually)
  • Seasonal workers
  • Have multiple jobs
  • Temporary foreign workers and/or migrants

Traditionally, these demographics or characteristics have been the primary areas of interest in determining work-related injury and illness. But Lifeso looked at vulnerability with a broader and holistic view.

"While research has shown that vulnerable workers are often at a higher risk of work-related injury and illness, I think it's important to recognize that categorizing workers as "vulnerable" based on demographics or individual characteristics does not paint the full picture," says Lifeso. "These factors do not identify the specific circumstances that place workers at higher risk."

To do this, she examined a wide range of factors that could influence and affect workplace safety. Through her research, Lifeso explored worker vulnerability from a different perspective. She looked at factors that contributed to a hostile work environment such as bullying, harassment, or unwanted sexual attention; how psychological health and issues were recognized, communicated or managed in the employee's work environment; and social supports and inclusivity in the workplace, from coworkers and employers.

While Lifeso was conducting this work, a close family member found themselves in a vulnerable work situation.

"Having this personal connection, made me realize how important it is to understand the surrounding workplace safety issues that vulnerable workers experience," explains Lifeso. "This reinforced to me the importance of looking at vulnerable workers not solely on traditional definitions, but that we need to have a deeper and more complete understanding of the components that make up their work environment."

Through this work, Lifeso found experiencing various determinants of vulnerability is highly associated to having high job strain, which in turn is highly associated with experiencing work-related injury, muscoskeletal disorder and poor self-rated mental health.

"By considering these additional factors - work environment, psychological health and social supports we can better inform and improve programs and initiatives that protect and promote the health and well-being of workers in Alberta," explains Lifeso.

Natasha Lifeso is the 2019 MPH recipient of the Dean's Gold Medal. The Dean's Gold Medal was created as a legacy initiative during the School's 10th anniversary celebrations. The award is intended to recognize superior academic performance.