Celebrate the past and look forward to the future—the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) did both in equal measure at a conference marking their twenty-fifth anniversary.
More than 200 conference participants heard keynote addresses by senior labour and government officials and later joined OHCOW staff-led workshops focused on practical workplace interventions.
A history of helping workers
Ontario workers struggled throughout the 1970s and 1980s to secure basic health and safety rights. OHCOW is a product of those struggles. Workers wanted to identify and remedy hazardous working conditions but they also needed trusted information and support when work did rob them of their health. The United Steelworkers Local 1005 in Hamilton was first to commit funds for an independent workers clinic. Seeing the great need for such a service, other unions would join them. OHCOW, through the Ontario Federation of Labour, opened its first clinic in Hamilton in 1989. Early successes in Hamilton and then Toronto convinced the government to fund additional clinics in Windsor, Sudbury, Sarnia and Thunder Bay. Today, OHCOW is funded through employer assessments paid to the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board and transferred to the Ministry of Labour, who are now responsible for health and safety prevention in Ontario.
John Perquin, assistant to the international secretary treasurer of the United Steelworkers, is an OHCOW founding board member. More important than top notch, occupational health services Perquin says, “OHCOW provided workers with the respect they deserved. Workers were listened to. Their cases were investigated deeply. Staff went the extra mile to put cases together.” Along with helping workers and their families, Perquin says OHCOW has helped make Ontario workplaces healthier and safer, proof that prevention works.
Prevention through intervention
OHCOW clinics offer a unique interdisciplinary service model. Teams of doctors, nurses, hygienists and ergonomists provide medical, hygiene, ergonomic and health assessments of workplaces free-of-charge. Along with the critical input of occupational health practitioners OHCOW’s model also includes a role for workers and their representatives to participate in assessing and addressing workplace hazards. To support them, OHCOW has developed a library of user friendly workplace assessment resources to help workplace representatives understand and take action on a number of key workplace issues. These were the focus of a dozen conference workshops facilitated by OHCOW staff. Here are some workshop highlights.
Noise: The gradual onset of noise induced hearing loss often goes unnoticed and unaddressed. OHCOW’s online noise calculator offers a user friendly sound exposure calculation to help assess the hazard and compliance with Ontario’s Noise Regulation.
Heat Stress: In the absence of specific laws to address heat stress, OHCOW developed a Humidex Calculator and Heat Stress Response Plan in partnership with workers reps to identify and take action to prevent heat stress.
Ergonomics: More Ontario workers suffer from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) than any other type of lost-time injury. Along with workplace ergonomic assessments, OHCOW offers an office ergonomics resource guide and sample checklist, an MSD survey tool, and several assessment tools—physical demands description (calculates physical demands of work), a quick exposure check Excel tool, 3DSSPP (software that captures worker movement, calculates and analyses force and strain for static work) and back care lifting techniques.
Among OHCOW’s other recent successes are: guidelines to prevent back injuries among emergency service workers developed with Canadian Union of Public Employees; and, a new smart phone App to help measure stress levels and support their Mental Injury Toolkit.
OHCOW and WHSC—A prevention partnership
Like OHCOW, Workers Health & Safety Centre has long understood the need to get practical resources into the hands of workers and their representatives. Understanding the excellent educational value of the conference, WHSC helped promote the conference as they have with many other OHCOW initiatives. As well they sponsored free registration for some 100 conference participants, mostly including WHSC-qualified worker instructors and a few key WHSC staff.
Tools like OHCOW’s noise and heat stress calculators and mental injury toolkit are already included in corresponding WHSC training programs. Work on helping to popularize other OHCOW tools in WHSC programs is underway. WHSC also assisted recent research projects undertaken by OHCOW and the labour community, by helping to distribute and collect surveys to study subjects and then supporting the publishing of study results. Similarly, OHCOW has provided WHSC with sound technical expertise when needed in the development of information products and training programs.
Of the WHSC/OHCOW partnership Dave Killham, executive director, WHSC, says, “Both OHCOW and WHSC approach health and safety from a worker’s perspective. Worker priorities are both our priorities. This makes our longstanding collaborative partnership possible. Each of our organizations offers unique but complementary services for workers, their representatives and other workplace parties. We value this relationship with OHCOW and congratulate them on their commitment to prevention excellence.”
David Chezzi (pictured above) president and chair of OHCOW’s Board of Directors concurs. “We are proud to be a trusted and valued prevention resource. We have much to celebrate, but much work we still want to accomplish. Through our important and ongoing partnership with the WHSC, our constituency and clients, all things are possible.”
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