Widening gaps in worker security in the new work world

Last week, I had the privilege of two intense and absolutely fascinating days of discussion at the Institute for Work and Health (IWH). The occasion was the annual meeting of the IWH Scientific Advisory Committee, of which I have been a member for the past 6 years. The IWH is one of the premier workplace health and safety research centres in the world. Located in Toronto, it receives core funding from the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and its numerous research projects are funded by external grants.

Check out its website (www.iwh.on.ca). One of the things the IWH excels at is conducting “systematic reviews” of published research on important occupational safety and health topics, and distilling the findings down to basic lessons for practitioners. My personal favourites are its summaries of participatory ergonomics and effective return to work practices.

One of the key points I took away from the discussions last week with IWH scientists is the growing gap in the worker health and safety protection system. Put simply, existing protections range from workers compensation to employer-provided short and long tern disability coverage. However, these systems were products of an earlier industrial age and are unable to provide adequate protection to the growing number of workers in “non-standard” work arrangements — that is, who do not have a full-time, on-going employment relationship with a single employer. Furthermore, in a knowledge-based service economy, there are fewer workplace risks to physical health and more risks to mental health.  Workers’ compensation rarely covers (for example, in cases of sexual harassment or assaults) time lost due to mental stress. And typically it is only workers in standard jobs with large employers who have access to private disability insurance, which does address mental health issues.

What’s the solution? Clearly there needs to be broader protection, especially for workers who become ill, injured or disabled as a result of their work, but who now are falling between the cracks of the out-dated protection system. What form this protection takes requires careful discussions with stakeholders — just as pension reform is now being addressed in Canada. Fortunately, the discussion about a new occupational health and safety protection system will be informed by an innovative “flagship” research project at the IWH. So stay tuned.