Employers must help workers be safe in the workplace – and at home

Employees at the heart of my research, says safety expert inspired by father, who suffered from 'welder's flash'

Employers must help workers be safe in the workplace – and at home

Thomas Tenkate says that his passion for health and safety started through his father:

“My dad was a boilermaker welder for his whole working life. He worked for the same company for 46 years. When I was younger, he would come home at night wearing sunglasses,” he says.

He explains that his father wore sunglasses as a result of welder’s flash. Welder’s flash – or arc eye – is an inflammation of the eye cornea caused by ultraviolet radiation from the arc during welding.

“I got into [OHS] because of my dad and the impact of work on him,” says Tenkate. “In the end, he had a range of different exposures at work that really impacted him.”

Tenkate explains that his father would sometimes bring him to work, where he witnessed the working conditions in the factory: “I thought, if I can do things to help people who are working in factories like this to try and help them work more safely and be healthier and come home to their families, then that’s what I want to do.”

Tenkate grew up in Australia where he did his undergraduate degree in environmental health, and did his doctorate at the University of Alabama in the U.S.

He has worked on various projects around the world, including in Vietnam, China, Brazil and various countries in Europe.

After his stint in the U.S., he returned to Australia where he worked for government and then in academia at the Queensland University of Technology.

When he first came to Canada 10 years ago, Tenkate took on the role of Director of the School of Occupational and Public Health at Ryerson University. He held that position until 2020, and continues as an Associate Professor.

As director, part of his role was to help manage the undergraduate degree program in occupational safety at Ryerson which he says, “is still the only comprehensive OHS undergraduate degree in Canada […] We’re trying to train the next generation of health and safety leaders.”

Tenkate is now focused on teaching and research: “The current project we finished was around helping small businesses to assess the hazards and risks of the chemicals they use, and provide tools that would help them do that more effectively,” he says.

Tenkate has also done work around skin cancer prevention: “Growing up in Australia, I got sunburned a lot!”

Skin cancer as an occupational hazard is really underrecognized, he says, despite the fact that a lot of people work outdoors: “The research that we’ve done shows that people are getting a lot of sunburns every summer, and that’s why we did our Sun Safety at Work project to try and build resources and supports to help businesses better protect their workers.”

In addition, Tenkate continues to do work on welding eye injuries, particularly around ultraviolet radiation – spurred by his experience with his father.

“A lot of my research has been around trying to address needs, and building tools, processes and resources to help people do things better,” says Tenkate.

His research is focused on trying to address real world needs, and develop processes and resources that are of assistance to professionals and workers in health and safety:

“We’re trying to do the best we can to have workplaces safer and healthier.”

Tenkate says that he always keeps in mind the workers, and the value that he can bring to the end user: “I try to help workers do their jobs more safely and not get adverse exposures so they can go home to their families, hopefully in better shape than when they came to work.”

We spend so much time at work, he says, that workplaces should be trying to help their employees to be healthier and safer – not just at work but outside of work too.