Workers Health & Safety Centre

Most worker health and safety training highly deficient: studies

Dr. D. Linn Holness
Workplace training to help protect worker health and especially prevent occupational skin disease has been consistently found wanting by a series of Ontario-based studies. 

The research findings were recently presented by Dr. D. Linn Holness (pictured here), Director, Centre for Research Expertise in Occupational Disease (CREOD). The Centre, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Labour and affiliated with the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital, is dedicated to improving the understanding and prevention of occupational disease.

The studies, drawing on information from workers with possible contact dermatitis, offer helpful insights into the provision of both general health and safety and job-specific training and the quality and usefulness of both.

Occupational Skin Diseasean under-recognized issue

Occupational skin disease (OSD) may not be top of mind for many, but it’s one of the most common occupational illnesses, the vast majority being cases of work-related contact dermatitis(WRCD). WRCD can make it painful or impossible to continue work, and not all workers with WRCD get better. A CREOD analysis of Canadian data from the North America Contact Dermatitis Group database, found 17 per cent of those tested had a work-related diagnosis. Certain occupations are at much greater risk, including hairdressers and cosmetologists, chemical workers, cleaners, construction and healthcare workers. Common exposures include wet work, cleaning agents, solvents, oils and grease, metals and plastics.

In a series of studies conducted over 20 years, CREOD researchers have found few Ontario workplaces have practices and programs in place to prevent occupational skin diseases. Training programs were especially lacking.

Data sources and key research findings

One source of data for CREOD researchers is information gathered from patients being assessed for possible work-related contact dermatitis at the Occupational Health Clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. This has provided rich data for a series of studies to examine occupational skin disease and workplace interventions. Patients were also asked about workplace training they have received on both general health and safety and Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (now Globally-harmonized WHMIS).

The studies had some consistent findings including the following.
  • Less than half of workers reported receiving workplace skin-specific training; where it was provided, the training focused on glove use and handwashing.
  • Only about two-thirds of workers said they received general OHS training (68 per cent) and WHMIS training (63 per cent).
  • Unionized workers were more likely to report receiving training.
  • Training was rarely repeated.
  • Workers said the most helpful content would include content on avoiding exposures and early warning signs of skin problems.
  • There was little supervisor or manager follow-up after the training.
  • Trainee attendance was usually but not always recorded.

Workers' perspectives on training

More recent qualitative studies conducted by CREOD researchers (2015, 2017) examined workers’ perspectives on training. Workers reported workplace health and safety training was:
  • Usually focused on safety and injury prevention rather than exposures or disease;
  • Not memorable—it wasn’t easily retained or there was too much information;
  • Mostly passive, often online and sometimes completed on their own time.

When asked what training they would like to receive, workers asked for content on skin disease exposures, health effects and prevention measures. Workers also cited a preference for training that was hands-on, delivered in-person, and received at the start of employment. They also believed training was more likely to happen if it was mandatory.

Asked for examples of good training experiences, workers cited First Aid and CPR. Most often however, they cited the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information training they received as particularly bad training.

Worker health and safety advocates have long called for a WHMIS training standard that would help ensure workers receive consistent, high-quality training and provide a minimum level of instruction to Ontario workers, most of whom are covered by the WHMIS regulation.

Related resources:

IWH Plenary slidecast: Assessing workplace training for skin exposure prevention
CREOD Occupational Skin Disease Resources
CREOD Research Flash--Preventing work-related skin disease: A qualitative study to identify characteristics of a desirable training program
IWH-Sharing best evidence: Effectiveness of OHS education and training

WHSC-related articles:

Ontario worker OHS awareness training ineffective, IWH study says
Ontario study finds unionized construction sites are safer
WHSC—WHMIS Resources

Learn more:

The Workers Health & Safety Centre assists workplace parties through training programs and information services. Based on proven training principles, all WHSC resources are aimed at raising awareness about hazardous exposures and targeting prevention at the workplace level.

Call:    1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak with a training services representative