In academia, occupational safety and public health have historically been somewhat siloed. Toronto Metropolitan University’s new Master of Science (MSc) in Occupational and Public Health, launched in September 2022, aims to change that.
“To my knowledge, no other Canadian institution combines public health and occupational health in one program,” says Chun-Yip Hon, Graduate Program Director and Associate Professor of Occupational and Public Health at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU).
In addition to merging the disciplines of occupational and public health, the program is uniquely research-based, rather than project-based, and has teaching staff with both research and professional experience. Overall, the program aims to provide advanced learning and research opportunities to its graduates, equipping them with the skills needed to meet emerging challenges in this growing field.
“We’re trying to make sure that graduates can use their knowledge to drive policy or make changes within workplaces or public settings,” says Hon. “We’re hoping to impart evidence-based, science-based decision-making skills to graduates that they can bring to future employers.”
The program’s launch is timely. Although occupational and public health have always had real-world overlap, the connections between the two fields were made clearer by the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During the pandemic, we were concerned about community spread — someone who was positive might spread Covid to someone else at a retail store or a restaurant. Then on the occupational side, if that positive person went into their workplace, they might pass it on to their coworkers and the workplace might have to shut down,” Hon points out.
Hon adds, “Kids exposed to Covid at school would be considered public exposure, but teachers exposed to the virus at school would be considered occupational exposure. That’s why there [needs to be] a marriage between the two disciplines…as a society, we’ve realized that there’s value in recognizing the overlap and links between public health and occupational health.”
While many occupational and public health practices remain consistent over time, Hon says there are additional skills that graduates should hone to succeed in the field today.
With new technologies continually emerging, Hon says occupational and public health professionals need to cultivate adaptability and analytical thinking skills.
“There are really beneficial new technologies — wearable tech that can be monitored remotely, for example,” Hon says. “New professionals need to be familiar with the technologies, [learn] how to use them, explore where they might be beneficial, and work with developers to determine how they could best be utilized. Then, we want students to be able to evaluate their feasibility. Are they beneficial in terms of improving health and safety? Have they been tested from a scientific perspective? Are they feasible from a cost-benefit perspective?”
Hon says that for occupational and public health professionals, “outside the box” thinking is invaluable.
“People who have been working in occupational or public health for a long time get set in their ways,” he says. “They do things the way they’ve been done in the past, but they may not question whether their work is helping, improving, or meeting current objectives. We want to encourage students to question the status quo and be creative while at the same time staying within professional and ethical boundaries.”
TMU’s new program aims to prepare its graduates to address current challenges in occupational and public health, including climate change, changing demographics, infectious diseases, and workplace injuries and accidents. Hon says that many current and emerging issues are related to labour market shifts.
For example, changing demographics have a significant impact on occupational and public health issues and how they are addressed.
“We have an aging workforce,” says Hon. “They have different needs than individuals who are just joining the workforce, especially if a job has heavy physical demands.”
Labour market shifts also affect legislation and funding related to occupational and public health. Hon points to the increased awareness of mental health as an example of how a formerly “private” issue has had a substantial impact on occupational and public health, including at the legislative and funding level.
“We know that working from home has made finding work-life balance challenging for many people, which led to Ontario’s Bill 27: Working for Workers Act, 2021, a bill that permits workers to disconnect from their work-related technologies after work hours,” Hon says. “Public health is impacted by mental health, too — it can impact not only your work, but also how you interact with your family and friends.”
For occupational and public health graduates, Hon says there are diverse employment opportunities and that the field is growing.
For example, occupational safety and health professionals can become ergonomists, health and safety trainers, and policy advisors in governmental agencies, while public health professionals can work for public health units, as food safety specialists or as epidemiologists — and the list goes on.
“One of the beauties of this field is that there are so many sub-specialties that students can choose from,” Hon says. “There’s so much out there, and what’s important is finding something that you’re passionate about in one or two of those sub-specialties. Bring that passion to the classroom, so whatever we teach you in your courses, you recognize that it can be applied.”