Workers with disabilities report greater OHS vulnerability

Workers experiencing greater hazard exposure, inadequate procedures


According to a new study by the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) in Toronto, workers who identify as having a disability are more likely to be exposed to workplace hazards. Additionally, they are more likely to face inadequate occupational health and safety (OHS) protections.

“Basically, they get hit with a double whammy,” said Curtis Breslin, lead author of the study. “We found they reported more hazards in the jobs that they worked and… even when they seem to be working comparable jobs to people without disabilities, they still have this, what we call, OHS vulnerability.”

IWH has developed a 27-question OHS Vulnerability Measure that determines whether a worker is vulnerable to occupational health and safety risks at work. The survey asks questions on four vulnerability dimensions:

• exposure to workplace hazards

• access to organization-level protective polices and procedures

• awareness of rights and responsibilities related to health and safety

• workplace culture and support.

Nearly 2,000 workers completed the questionnaire. Respondents were asked whether they suffered from a long-term physical or mental condition or health problem that reduces the amount or kind of activity they can do at work. Individuals who reported a work-related physical or mental injury or illness in the past year were excluded from the sample because the researchers felt a recent injury may impact their perceptions of the OHS vulnerability factors.

More than one-half of the respondents who were “sometimes” or “often” disabled at work were exposed to hazards, compared to 41 per cent of those without a disability.

Respondents who identified as having a disability were 66 to 70 per cent more likely to report vulnerability due to hazard exposure combined with inadequate policy and procedures, the study found. Respondents with disabilities were also nearly twice as likely to be vulnerable to hazard exposure and lack of empowerment.

“Empowerment is a very interesting one,” Breslin said. “Do they feel they have input in the safety climate and safety policies and procedures in their workplace? Do they feel they have input into the joint health and safety committee? That can really pick up on a number of things.”

When it came to vulnerability due to OHS awareness, a statistically significant link was found for workers who were “sometimes” disabled at work, but not for those who were “often” disabled. Awareness refers to workers not only understanding their rights and responsibilities to a safe workplace, but also having an awareness of the hazards they may face.

The report hypothesizes that such vulnerabilities may be related to the fact that people with disabilities are more likely to hold low-skill, temporary jobs, which are associated with greater hazards and a weaker safety culture. The report also notes that when individuals with disabilities hold comparable jobs to those without, there can be a poorer job fit — due to lack of appropriate accommodations — that opens those individuals up to safety risks. Accommodations could be as simple as allowing more time to finish a task or purchasing speech-to-text software for individuals with learning disabilities.

Breslin recommends supervisors and OHS managers review the kinds of disabilities or limitations that may be common in their workplace.

“There’s the idea of universal design, engineering out the hazard, that helps everybody, including people with a disability,” he said. “It’s making another push for the basics to really just get those hazards out of the workplace so that everybody’s safer.”

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of COS.