Dr. Imelda Wong joined the On the Move Partnership in August 2015 as an affiliated post-doctoral fellow. She is both an occupational epidemiologist and an industrial hygienist, and is currently an ORISE Scholar at the Centres for Disease Control / National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (CDC/NIOSH). Her research primarily focuses on the broad range of health effects associated with non-standard working hours, including the risk of commuting accidents resulting from fatigued and distracted driving.
Q: Your post-doctoral work in affiliation with On the Move dealt with the risk of commuting accidents associated with shift work and other non-standard work schedules. What were some of your main findings?
I: I met Barb and learned about On the Move towards the end of my post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute for Work and Health. Consequently, I did not end up conducting any specific studies examining commuting motor vehicle crashes (MVCs). However, I did develop a proposal to study commuting MVCs. While it was unfortunately not a priority area of the funder, the knowledge I gained from the proposal literature review and my affiliation with OTM helped me, in part, to obtain my current position with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (Thanks Barb!)
Q: Do you think that there are ways in which current Canadian policy could be amended to better address and minimize such risk? If so, what changes would you recommend?
I: I think we need to learn more about commuting habits in North America in general, and the association with MVCs. There are current surveillance studies which show an increase in the number of people who drive to and from work, and that those people are spending more time and driving further distances, but there is not much information about risk of commuting-related MVCs. However, with a growing workforce population – particularly among those working non-standard schedules (shift work, extended hours and so on) – increasing work demands/stress, and longer commuting times, the risk for fatigued-related commuting accidents poses a special concern for many workers and worker-health organizations, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The ILO defines a commuting accident as “an accident occurring on the habitual route, in either direction, between the place of work or work-related training and: (i) the worker’s principal or secondary residence; (ii) the place where the worker usually takes his or her meals; or (iii) the place where he or she usually receives his or her remuneration; which results in death or personal injury”. The ILO has recognized the serious impact of commuting accidents on worker health and safety and recommended that it be formally listed as an occupational disease for the purpose of prevention, recording, notification, and compensation. While some European and Asian countries have adopted this practice, Canada and the U.S. have not, thereby making it difficult to monitor and understand factors contributing to commuting accident trends in North America, where commuting practices may differ.
Q: What is the most surprising or unexpected thing that you have learned from your research?
I: So far, I am surprised how little we know about the risk of commuting-related MVCs in North America. I think there is a real need to study this in terms of public safety, and increased knowledge may encourage additional conversations about engineered safety controls (e.g. in-vehicle safety systems), community planning (e.g. transit), and alternative work arrangements (e.g. teleworking). More research needs to be done to better understand and address the risks.
Q: Do your findings suggest any interesting directions for future research? I know you’ve just recently won a grant to do some further work on fatigued and distracted driving – what types of questions do you plan to ask?
I: Yes! It’s an exciting time. I have just been awarded a grant to study fatigued and distracted driving among Oil and Gas Extraction (OGE) workers. Surveillance studies have shown that transportation incidents are the leading cause of death in the U.S. OGE industry, resulting in over 40% of all workplace fatalities. In addition, motor vehicle fatality rates in OGE are almost nine times that for all industries combined, and second only to the transportation sector. Although more than half the OGE workers who have died have been occupants of light-duty vehicles (e.g. pickup trucks), they are not covered by the same federal safety regulations for hours of service that currently govern commercial drivers. Our overall objectives of this study are to (i) identify risk factors for fatigued and distracted driving among light-duty vehicle operators in the OGE industry; and (ii) assess safety management systems. This will be an intervention study using the latest technology in eye-tracking devices to monitor fatigued and distracted driving. We’ll compare these to existing safety management systems and assess driver habits before and after implementation.
I’m also collaborating with researchers from the Department of Transportation to develop an online fatigue management training tool for workers and safety professionals in industries where driving is an integral part of the job, but are not covered under federal regulations of work and driving hours. This would include workers such as sales representatives, technicians, linesmen and first responders.
Q: You are an academic who now works at the Centres for Disease Control / National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (CDC/NIOSH), rather than at a university. Can you talk a little bit about that transition?
I: CDC/NIOSH is a phenomenal place to work! It is a bit different from academia just because of the nature and purpose of this U.S. federal agency. It is extremely exciting to be working where industrial hygiene methods and workplace exposure limits are developed. There are more than 1300 employees from a diverse range of disciplines, which encourages multi-disciplinary research. NIOSH also has many influential connections with industry partners and other federal agencies which provide many opportunities for research collaborations. There are also numerous training opportunities to further research skills. I’m constantly learning something new!
Perhaps the biggest differences I have observed between NIOSH and academia are the type of work conducted and the funding opportunities. At NIOSH, because it is a federal agency, in addition to research there is a significant emphasis on knowledge translation. So that might include packaging materials in ways that are better suited for the general population (e.g. mobile apps, flyers, social media, and so on), which might not necessarily be considered as scientific research. However, information dissemination is a strategic goal of NIOSH and there are dedicated divisions to help with these products.
As part of the CDC, we also have opportunities to work with projects related to global health. For example, when the CDC deployed workers as part of the U.S. government response to the recent Ebola epidemic in Africa, many of my colleagues were part of that initiative. Many others remained state-side but were also a crucial part. For example, my supervisor (Dr. Claire Caruso) created a fatigue-management training program for emergency responders to provide strategies for coping with the long work hours they would experience while helping with the Ebola response. The content for the emergency responder training was adapted from a comprehensive online training program developed for nurses to help nurses with the demands of shift work and long work hours.
In terms of job tenure, I have found there is a more job security working at NIOSH, which allows me to plan further into the future. I graduated at a time when research funding in Canada was disappearing and some universities were implementing a hiring freeze. The prospect of short-term contracts in the interim did not align with my career goals; whereas, my opportunity at NIOSH included a long-term plan to develop a program of research on working hours and fatigue.
Q: If you were contacted by a current student/trainee interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours, what advice would you offer to him or her?
I: Stay true to what you want to study. It can be a challenge at times, but keep your eyes open for new opportunities and keep networking with those in your research field. Jobs in the U.S. federal government are rarely offered to non-U.S. citizens, and at times I miss my Canadian roots, but I wake up excited every day about the work that I am doing at NIOSH and the impact that it may have on the health and safety of workers.