The objectives and intended outcomes of Prevention Works represent foundational OHS issues that need to be addressed broadly. Based on our consultations, research findings, and our experiences with COVID-19, Prevention Works also includes two areas of systems focus, which will involve stakeholders from within and outside of the OHS system (for example, other provincial ministries). We expect that through these areas of systems focus – occupational illnesses, work-related mental health and workplace violence and harassment – the OHS system will achieve the biggest impact in reducing or eliminating exposure to the hazards that pose the greatest risk.

Occupational illnesses

The OHS system will focus on preventing occupational illnesses,footnote 69 which are health problems caused by exposure to physical, chemical or biological agents in the workplace. WSIB statistics show that long latency occupational diseases – such as cancers that do not develop until a long time after the hazardous exposure took place at work – are among the most serious and make up the largest amount of allowed benefit costs in Ontario.footnote 70 However, researchers with the Occupational Cancer Research Centre assert that workers compensation statistics largely underestimate the true impact of occupational illness.footnote 71 Moreover, research from the Occupational Cancer Research Centre of Ontario Health (OCRC) shows that about 3,000 new cases of cancer each year in Ontario are caused by exposure at work to one or more of 16 hazardous substances, commonly found in workplaces.footnote 72

Occupational illnesses may also occur more acutely and suddenly, including those caused by exposure to infectious diseases (for example, COVID-19). The OHS system will support workplaces to be healthy and safe during and after COVID-19 and will help workplaces prepare for other types of outbreaks. In addition, the OHS system will review how such events can disproportionately impact particular workers (for example, temporary foreign agricultural workers) and workplaces to inform targeted occupational illness prevention activities now and in the future.

Research shows that a multi-faceted, system-level approach is needed to reduce burden of occupational illness.footnote 73footnote 74 As a system, we will build on the latest evidence available as well as the work that the system has done to date. Since 2017, we have been working with OHS system partners as well as other partners from the broader health sector to implement an Occupational Disease Action Plan (ODAP). The ODAP includes a range of actions to support recommended approaches to prevent occupational illnesses, including updated legislation and regulations; enforcement and compliance; improved access to exposure data and illness surveillance to monitor trends and patterns; improved linkages with physicians; and, targeted communications, training, tools and resources to raise awareness.

To enhance our approach on the prevention of occupational illnesses, over the next five years we will continue to build on the successful approaches in the ODAP to move from evidence to action, strengthen our existing partnerships and expand our partnerships with public health and the health care system partners to support collaborative, multi-disciplinary, evidence-informed approaches and activities across the OHS system and broader health systems.

Work-related mental health and workplace violence and harassment

System partners such as the WSIB and the HSAs are doing important work in these areas. For example, the WSIB provides compensation and a range of services (including re-employment, health care, and return to work) for work-related mental injuries, such as chronic stress and traumatic mental stress. The HSAs provide important training and resources on work-related mental health and on the development of workplace violence and harassment policies and programs.

Over the next five years, the OHS system will continue to focus on providing work-related mental health information and resources through the HSAs and preventing workplace violence and harassment (especially in education and healthcare sectors). During our province-wide consultations the ministry heard that work-related mental health is a serious issue in Ontario’s workplaces. Participants identified issues such as lack of clarity around work-related mental health, violence and burnout for nurses and health care professionals, employer obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act regarding workplace violence and harassment, and increased support for addressing impairment (which may pose a physical hazard) in the workplace.

The ministry’s benchmark public opinion survey also found that among those who sought information about workplace health and safety, the most sought-after type of information was about harassment (33%), particularly among women. Information on dangerous substances (32%) and mental health (29%) was also highly sought-after. Aligned with the recommendations of the researchers who led the survey, the OHS system will work to ensure that information and resources about workplace harassment, violence and work-related mental health are effectively communicated and made available to workers.

In addition, one of the top OHS issues observed in Ontario’s workplaces in 2018 was workplace violence and harassment across all sectors.footnote 75 Research conducted by the Institute for Work and Health has demonstrated sector and gender differences in Ontario, with higher incident rates of workplace violence reported in the education sector, and higher among women.footnote 76 Workplace violence and workplace harassment may result in psychological injury. Compliance with the rights and duties in the OHSA that deal with workplace violence and harassment will remain a key focus of the ministry’s initiatives.

COVID-19 brought a heightened focus to the importance of work-related mental health, and OHS system partners (such as the HSAs and the WSIB) will work to address the unique challenges to workplaces resulting from COVID-19 within the parameters of their respective mandates.