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November 13 , 2003
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Partnering for occupational
health and safety

By Sharon Gray
Nearly three years ago the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) granted $2.1 million over five years for a multidisciplinary research program known as SafetyNet, based at Memorial to study and identify ways to promote marine and coastal health and safety. A conference Oct. 30-Nov. 1 in St. John’s showed just how far that money has already gone in producing solid results and leveraging more funding for further research.

From Research to Practice: Partnering for Occupational Health and Safety included presentations on occupational asthma in snow crab processing workers, research partnerships for occupational health and safety, community research alliances, extreme working conditions, safety at sea, and working in the cold. A keynote address by Dr. John Frank, the scientific director for CIHR’s Institute for Population and Public Health, presented some striking data on how working conditions affect people’s health both directly and indirectly.

“Stressful working conditions can lead to cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, psychological and other serious health problems” explained Dr. Stephen Bornstein, co-director of SafetyNet. “There is a relationship between your work and your health, but there’s been relatively little research, especially in Canada, on work as a major health determinant.”

Dr. Barbara Neis, co-director of SafetyNet, heads up a study on occupational asthma in snow crab processing workers. “We’ve found about 18 per cent of the workers over four plants with different histories have occupational asthma with the rate varying from plant to plant, although we can’t necessarily generalize this to the industry as a whole. Almost none of those we talked to had filed claims with the Workplace Health Safety and Compensation Commission. We wanted to find out why there was such drastic underreporting.”

Dr. Neis said the problem is that if workers who have developed a sensitivity to snow crab continue to work, some will develop persistent, year-round asthma that will require year-round medication and may be triggered by other things like cigarette smoke and perfume.

Another SafetyNet project that has produced significant research results is on safety at sea. Speaking on the background conditions and the need for research, Merv Wiseman of Maritime Search and Rescue noted that the rate of accidents and near-misses has gone up since the early 1990s even though the number of fishing vessels has gone down.

Since its inception, SafetyNet has expanded its capacity to document workplace health and safety in marine and coastal work and identify solution by obtaining an interdisciplinary capacity enhancement (ICE) grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. This grant is funding the development of an East Coast Consortium on Workplace Health and Safety in collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke and the IRSST (Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail) in Montreal, the research arm of the workers compensation board in Quebec. The five-year grant of $200,000 per year also includes partial funding for a chair in workplace health and safety (with co-funding by the Voisey’s Bay Nickel Company) and for a postdoctoral fellow, both to be located at Memorial University. The grant will enable SafetyNet to broaden the network of researchers involved in workplace health and safety research at Memorial and in Atlantic Canada and help support the developmenet of new projects related to forestry and sea urchin diving. A primary focus of the consortium is the transfer of research knowledge and tools for promoting workplace health and safety from Quebec to English Canada.

Dr. Bornstein said a highlight of the conference was a panel discussion on Occupational
Health and Safety in Newfoundland and Labrador: How are we doing? “The panel included all the major players at the senior level and everyone was asked three questions: What progress has been made in recent years in workplace health and safety in this province? What are the areas where improvement is still needed? Where can research fit in? We were struck by the extent of agreement about the key issues and on the importance of working with a broad coalition to improve health and safety in the province.”

Dr. Neis said SafetyNet’s experience with its community partners has been quite positive. The third day of the conference was an internal program review, and many of the community partners were involved in that. “We have to do research that has a positive effect outside the academy. It’s sometimes a challenge but outside partners have made real commitments and put time and money into the project. They will help us respond to the advice from the external reviewers for ways to enhance the effectiveness of our research and our capacity to identify future funding to support this work at Memorial.”

Dr. Bornstein said Memorial has also been extremely supportive of SafetyNet. “The university has put cash into this program to help us with infrastructure and both the president and the vice-president (research) have been very helpful.”

Dr. Neis anticipates that the work begun by SafetyNet will continue and grow. “Our strategy has never been to do research on health and safety for five years, pack our bags and go home, because there is obviously a real need right across the Atlantic region. In recent years, the CIHR has begun to put more funding into workplace health and safety research and Workers Compensation Boards across the country are talking about ways to provide additional support, but given the importance of work to the lives and health of Canadians, research into workplace health and safety is still badly underfunded in Canada.”

Dr. Bornstein agreed that the process of building expertise has just begun. “We are making partnerships, bringing in expertise, sending people out to acquire new skills and bringing them back in. Ultimately we hope to build up real regional expertise with Memorial as an administrative core in what is increasingly recognized as an important research area.”


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