Paper: “What benefit are we getting out of this?”: Investigating sustainability in two occupational health programs

Author(s) and Affiliation(s):
Shane M. Dixon, Dept of Sociology, University of Waterloo
Nancy Theberge, Dept of Sociology, University of Waterloo, Dept of Kinesiology, University of Waterloo, Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (CRE MSD),
Donald C. Cole, Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (CRE MSD), Institute of Work and Health, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto
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Many occupational health and safety (OHS) programs are intended to endure for an extended period of time. However, evidence exists that OHS programs may not be sustained long enough so that their anticipated benefits for workers and companies are realized. In this presentation, sustainability is examined in the context of participatory ergonomics. Participatory ergonomics draws on the input of labour and management representatives to address exposure to hazards that may lead to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). This presentation investigates how access to resources and management’s support influenced the continuation of occupational health programs in two settings.


The analysis is based on field notes and interview data gathered in two workplaces: a furniture manufacturing company that produces components for office equipment and a courier company. Field notes were recorded for 30 months in the courier depot and for 48 months in the furniture plant. In each site, interviews were conducted with approximately 25 individuals, including representatives of labour and management. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcribed interviews and field notes were imported into a qualitative software program and then analyzed.


Participatory ergonomic (PE) programs were established in a courier depot and a manufacturing plant. This included the formation of ergonomic change teams that consisted of labour and management representatives. The outcomes differed in the two sites. In the courier company, the ECT made several changes to reduce MSDs; however, the PE program was not accepted by management as a worthwhile way to address OHS concerns. Support for the program’s maintenance, strong in the beginning, receded over time and management was unprepared to provide for its continuance. Conversely, in the furniture company, support grew over time and management accepted the PE program as an important means of addressing high OHS costs. The findings demonstrate how the programs’ sustainability differed and how these variations were related to (a) the ECTs’ capacity to make a case for PE program continuation and (b) the organizational context in which the programs were embedded.


Two main factors influenced PE program continuation. The first was the ability of program supporters to demonstrate an impact on OHS costs. While in the furniture plant, supporters successfully made the case that the programs contributed to reducing OHS costs. In the courier depot, management viewed the programs to have no measurable effect on these costs.

The second factor was the ability of program supporters in the furniture plant to integrate the programs into the company’s OHS system. They did this in three ways: they promoted the PE program among key audiences such as plant managers, they formalized the program by codifying its procedures, goals, and identifying personnel responsible for its activities, and they established PE as complementary to the plant’s OHS programs, and specifically its return-to-work program. In contrast, in the courier company, the PE program was never fully integrated into facility activities and, in the absence of evidence that it decreased OHS costs management support eventually was withdrawn.