Workers Health & Safety Centre

Training among approaches needed to prevent occupational disease, study

Workplace programs aimed at preventing occupational disease should include a number of interventions, including training, for greater impact says a new review.

The study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine provides insights for workplaces, legislators and others seeking effective approaches for preventing occupational illnesses which continue to cause significant human, economic and social impacts.

Although perhaps first overlooked with the onslaught of COVID-19 concerns this year, this study stands out because it looks at hazard solutions instead of just adding to research findings on already identified hazards in the workplace.

Exploring prevention approaches

Funded by a grant from WorkSafe BC, a team of researchers from four Canadian research institutions set out to assess existing peer-reviewed studies and grey literature which examine the primary prevention of four occupational diseases: noise‐related hearing loss, contact dermatitis, occupational asthma and occupational cancers associated with four specific work exposures (asbestos, diesel exhaust, silica, and shiftwork).
Of the 404 articles reviewed many cited disease prevention efforts through a combination of interventions. Over half measured the impact of the intervention on reducing exposure or disease. These studies were then grouped by type of intervention: 1) legislation and regulations 2) surveillance 3) exposure control measures 4) education and training and 5) multifaceted approaches combining multiple methods.

Combination of controls more effective  

Not surprising, a key finding from the review was that applying multiple interventions is often more effective than relying on a single one. Of the specific interventions studied researchers found:
  • Laws and regulations can be an effective means of primary prevention, their impact dependent on the nature of the regulations and their enforcement;
  • Measures across the hierarchy of controls can reduce the risk of some of diseases and reduce exposures;
  • Monitoring, surveillance, and screening are effective prevention tools including for evaluating the impact of legislative/policy change;

The researchers also noted, while some studies supported using a range of controls, “In practice, however, there tends to be a focus on PPE rather than on higher elements in the hierarchy. This is problematic, as it shifts the burden of protection to the worker…”.

Education and training programs—context and delivery matters

Researchers found a limited number of quality studies to fully assess this intervention, but made some general observations. They found generic programs were generally less effective and that tailored multi-media training programs were more effective leading them to conclude that the impact of education and training is context-dependent and influenced by the manner of delivery.
The researchers did identify factors that contribute to the success of primary prevention programs and educational campaigns including: worker engagement and involvement; understanding the needs of the audience and barriers to uptake; and, particularly for smaller businesses, using trusted sources (like suppliers, peers, and trade associations) to communicate messages.

Insights from key informants

To supplement what they found in the literature researchers also conducted interviews with key informants or subject matter experts who largely affirmed findings from the literature review and noted in particular a lack of research intended to measure the effectiveness of prevention interventions especially in the vulnerable workforce.
Key informants observed:
  • A range of factors influence health and safety outcomes including regulatory frameworks, organizational and management structures, worker engagement and empowered health and safety committees
  • Evaluating regulatory interventions depends upon enforcement and having regulations based on current scientific evidence
  • Technologies to reduce exposures are underused and often too costly for small businesses
  • Silos between occupational and public health still exist and must be broken down.

They further concluded, “Rather than focusing on controlling exposures, the more strategic primary prevention approach would be to move upstream and focus on eliminating the hazard at its source….”. Legislating a “prevention by design” approach, for example by amending building design standards to include a requirement for noise reduction controls, could drive innovation and prevention measures. Other cited examples of this approach include Massachusetts’ Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Prevention through Design (PtD) program.

How WHSC can help

The Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) supports workplace prevention efforts with training programs and information services to raise awareness about hazardous exposures and target prevention efforts at the workplace level. WHSC offers specific training on Making the Link Between Occupational Disease and the Workplace, Documenting Health and Safety, Occupational Hygiene Monitoring, Asbestos and Noise.

Workplace representatives who want to record workplace exposures and investigate illnesses can download WHSC’s recently updated health and safety documentation tools along with a series of Resource Lines hazard bulletins.

The COVID-19 crisis presented an unprecedented challenge in terms of providing access to the Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) essential and mandatory training programs. WHSC quickly retooled our delivery model in a way we could still ensure the integrity of our training and safety of participants and instructors. This we achieved with our WHSC virtual classroom training.

WHSC also helps employers meet training and competency requirements for supervisorsjoint health and safety committees and worker health and safety representatives, all of whom play essential roles in the pursuit of healthier, safer workplaces. Many of these training essentials, including our JHSC Certification training programs and revised COVID-19 training program, are currently scheduled in our virtual classrooms.

Beyond scheduled classes, and where participant numbers warrant, we can work with you to coordinate almost any of our training courses in a virtual classroom for all workers, workplace representatives and supervisors.
Need more information still?
Call: 1-888-896-7950 or contact a WHSC training services representative near you.
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Additional related resources:
Better recognition of occupational cancers can aid prevention too, report
Most worker health and safety training highly deficient, studies
Groundbreaking report focuses on occupational cancer prevention in Ontario