Flagship projects

The Ontario Universities Low-back Pain Study

When the Institute for Work & Health was established in 1990, the three senior scientists who were brought on board to lead research projects knew they had to launch an ambitious, large study to make the Institute’s mark.

Over the next year, the scientists – Drs. John Frank, Claire Bombardier and Harry Shannon – along with other researchers, began to construct what was one of the largest and most complex occupational health research projects in Canada at the time.

The Ontario Universities Low-back Pain Study examined which factors contributed to low-back pain reports in workers at an auto assembly plant. This study was one of the most in-depth and sophisticated studies ever done on the biomechanical and psychosocial factors affecting back injuries, says Dr. John Frank, the Institute’s first scientific director.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2001, identified several risk factors associated with reports of low-back pain. The factors included:

  • having a physically demanding job
  • perceptions of a poor social environment at work
  • mismatch between a worker’s job and education level.

This flagship study became a cornerstone of the Institute’s workplace research program. It contributed significantly to work disability prevention knowledge at the Institute.

The Early Claimant Cohort

In 1994, Institute researchers launched a study of the factors affecting the length of a person’s disability following sprains and strains. This was the first clinical study to identify workers soon after their injury, and follow them through their treatment and recovery.

It was called the Early Claimant Cohort (ECC) study. The researchers also tested the effectiveness of an early, active, exercise and education program for injured workers. The program, which was sponsored by Ontario's workers’ compensation board, was based at community physiotherapy and chiropractic clinics across the province.

The researchers found that there were no health-related or return-to-work advantages with this treatment program, compared with usual care. The study’s results were based on 1,572 cases of injured workers who had filed new claims and who were still off work at the time of the interview, which was about 16 days after the injury.

Telephone interviews were done at the start of the study, and four more times, ending a year after the injury. Researchers also used additional information that was routinely collected by the compensation board for administering claims.

The RSI Star/SONG Project

A major six-year study involving Institute researchers showed that an ergonomic program could reduce frequent and severe pain among office workers with repetitive strain injury (RSI). (These injuries are now known as musculoskeletal disorders or MSDs.)

Additionally, the study showed that management practices were as important as workstation set-up in influencing these injuries, says IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Donald Cole. He and his colleagues studied the burden of these injuries and the impact of an ergonomic policy on more than 1,000 office workers at a Toronto daily newspaper.

They found that a link between supervisors’ concern and reduced pain in workers. Also, the more time spent using a computer mouse increased work disability. These findings were published in 2006 in International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health.

The results also showed that both physical factors – including keyboard set-up and mouse position – and workplace organizational factors – such as social support at work – were important in reducing the burden associated with RSIs.

This collaborative project involved representatives from the newspaper’s management, the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild (SONG), the on-site physiotherapy clinic and scientists and researchers from the Institute for Work & Health, the University of Waterloo and York University in Toronto.