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(February 8, 2001, Gazette)

Coastal health and safety

By Sharon Gray

The Canadian Institutes of Health
Research has announced $2.1 million for a five-year multidisciplinary research program based at Memorial University that will study and identify ways to promote marine and coastal workplace health and safety. The program will be administered through the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research, which is located at Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine and was set up in March 2000 with the aid of $500,000 from the provincial Department of Health and Community Services.

The co-directors of the program are Dr. Stephen Bornstein, a professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research, and Dr. Barbara Neis, associate professor in the Department of Sociology.

“Work in marine and coastal occupations in Atlantic Canada is notoriously dangerous and risky, but comparatively little research has been done on the occupational accidents and diseases faced by workers employed in these activities,” said Dr. Axel Meisen, president of Memorial. “This major funding from CIHR is wonderful news; it will allow some very important research to be done on issues of direct and urgent concern to the people of this province.”

Julie Bettney, acting minister of health and community services, says the $2.1 million grant is great news for the fledgling research institute. “It represents an excellent return on our initial investment. It comes because of partnerships developed with the provincial government, the university, health boards and community organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Dr. Bornstein explained that the program involves nine interrelated research projects in key aspects of Atlantic economic activity – four on fisheries, two on oil and gas, and three on exposures to cold air and cold water associated with work in either or both of these sectors.

The projects in fisheries include occupational asthma in snow crab processing, cumulative trauma disorders in snow crab processing, fishing vessel safety, and risks and prevention in fibreglass-reinforced boat building and repair. In the oil and gas sector, the two projects involve the health implications of offshore work schedules and occupational health and safety in petroleum refining. The projects examining work in cold air and cold water involve studies on surface exposure to cold, human cognition during exposure to cold, and work in cold deep-sea conditions.

“This research will be done through a unique and innovative network of collaboration involving the university, the provincial government, the workplace health safety and compensation commission, unions and employers in Newfoundland, as well as researchers and partner organizations in a number of other provinces,” said Dr. Neis. “We hope to use this funding not just to do some specific pieces of research over the next five years, but in addition to develop the infrastructure and expertise to attract ongoing funding for research on workplace health and safety issues in future decades.”

The research projects will not only add to the scientific understanding of a particular set of workplace illnesses and accidents, but are also designed to result in evidence-based practical recommendations for innovations in diagnostic and therapeutic methods, in regulatory regimes, and in approaches to training health professionals, workers and managers. “The five-year program is also crucial to the ability of the Centre for Applied Health Research to develop a self-sustaining capacity for interdisciplinary and intersectoral research/policy on workplace health and safety issues relevant to the Atlantic region and to an expanding range of economic sectors,” said Dr. Bornstein.

The Marine and Coastal Workplace Health and Safety Program is funded under the CIHR’s competition, Community Alliances for Health Research, announced by federal Health Minister Alan Rock in October, 2000. A total of 178 teams applied; a short list of 40 teams was asked to submit full applications and 19 of these have now been funded. The money for Memorial’s project will be distributed in annual grants of about $422,000 over five years.

Drs. Bornstein and Neis noted that a substantial portion of the funding will be used to support the training of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in various aspects of workplace health and safety research. “One interesting component of our research program will be collaboration between university-based researchers and the staff of the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission of Newfoundland; each research project will generate a set of specialized training modules for workers and managers in local and regional workplaces.”

The Centre for Applied Health Research is an independent research institute which reports to a board representing the university, the Department of Health and Community Services, the St. John’s Health Care Corporation, and public interest and community organizations.

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