First university dedicated to workplace safety opens in B.C. in September

First university dedicated to workplace safety opens in B.C. in September
A new university is being launched in British Columbia that will focus solely on education and research around workplace health and safety, return-to-work and disability management, as well as rehabilitation of injured workers. Sources claim this is the world's only university specialized in workplace health sciences.

The Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences, in Port Alberni, B.C., is a new not-for-profit university that will focus on education and research in occupational health and safety, disability management and rehabilitation.

School founders wanted to create an institution that would foster multidisciplinary research and the development of new knowledge in the field of workplace health sciences, said Wolfgang Zimmermann, executive director of the National Institute of Disability Management and Research (NIDMAR).

Programs will examine the entire lifelong workplace health cycle, he added, recognizing that occupational health and safety, health promotion, return to work, disability management and all aspects of rehabilitation are interrelated.

This approach is entirely new, Zimmermann said, because current university degrees in workplace health have a narrow focus.

“The workplace of the future requires a multidisciplinary approach, whereby we take our findings on rehabilitation and return to work and apply them to better outcomes in injury and illness prevention and in health promotion strategies. We don’t have that anywhere in the world today,” he said.

“The workplace of tomorrow will have different issues. The workplace evolves, and you need to take an integrated, holistic approach towards tackling those challenges.”

Zimmerman said the most rewarding part of the project was that it won the backing of the different groups needed to make it work. In 2007, the school received unanimous support from the B.C. Legislature, and both business and labour leaders sit on its board of governors.

“I think we managed to bridge the divide between political parties that don’t talk to each other very often,” he said.

Zimmermann suffered a logging accident in 1977 that left him paralyzed. Through rehabilitation, he was able to walk with a cane.  He re-trained and returned to work as an accountant and, in the late 1980s, became an advocate for safer workplaces and the rehabilitation of injured workers.

“He has been the champion, the visionary, the leader who’s really made the university happen. He is tireless,” says Maureen Shaw, former president and CEO of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association. Shaw now resides in Victoria, B.C., and is involved in various health and safety-related initiatives within the province.

By focusing on the workplace and bringing together teachers highly specialized in their fields, the school fills a gap left by other universities and community colleges, Shaw says. Most engineering, medicine and business graduates know little about health and safety on the job.

“How do you lead people to create healthy organizations, ones that don’t make people sick — either mentally or physically?” she said, adding she hopes the university will become a focal point for learning for senior business and union executives.

More than a million workers are injured every year in Canada, she adds, and it’s important that business managers understand the impact of their health and safety regimen on employees. And while our top priority must be preventing accidents, we must also learn how to reintegrate injured workers into the workplace faster.
“So often, there is no support for their return to work and, so often, they’re left dangling, and their length of time off work contributes to their further disability,” says Shaw, who is a member of the Workforce Advisory Committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“People become depressed. It’s more than a WSIB statistic. It’s about individuals and their families and their communities. It’s about bringing people back so that they’re productive and the organizations are productive.”

NIDMAR and Western Economic Diversification Canada provided initial funding for the school, and the Canadian government gave a  $1.65-million grant under the Knowledge Infrastructure Program. The school also received this year a pledge of $1.5 million over five years from Teck Resources, a mining and mineral company.

The university’s main building, fully accessible, was completed in March, and the school is currently running a $3-million fundraising campaign to pay for more capital projects and establish a Chair of Workplace Health Sciences — the first such position at any school.

Courses will be taught on site and by distance learning. Programs will be geared towards HR and occupational health professionals whose work also involves knowledge of disability management and return to work issues.

Formal opening ceremonies for the school takes place Sept. 6.