OHSU receives $6.9 million to expand research on workplace safety and wellness


Patrick Jones


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) awarded $6.9 million to the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center (OHWC) at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). This grant renews a five year grant program for Oregon’s version of a Center of Excellence which started in 2011. OHWC aims to expand research into health care worker burnout and wellbeing, firefighter work schedules, and chronic pain among home care workers. 


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NIOSH funded ten Centers across ten states, four of which will be new as of this year. The Centers of Excellence represent the Total Worker Health (TWH) research initiative funded by NIOSH to protect and advance the “safety, health, and well-being of the diverse population of workers in our nation.”

NIOSH defines TWH as “policies, programs, and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being.” The Centers act as a “hub” of TWH research. John Howard, M.D., NIOSH director, said:

“The expansion of the Centers and their expanding regional presence will help us learn more about the important connections between work health, which is vital for employers to build and retain a safer and more productive workforce. The research conducted at these Centers generates new knowledge to help us keep workers safe and healthy.”

A portion of the grant will be used to invest in a research project to intervene against health care worker burnout and overall well-being. Burnout is a multi-factorial problem which can be affected by industry-wide causes or the specific culture of the clinic, said David Hurtado, Sc.D., lead researcher of this project. 

The program will be called “Work life Check-ins” and will focus on the supervisor, employee relationship. The research program will take place in certain OHSU clinics and hospitals that are assigned to the program, while others will continue on their usual practices. 

Hurtado said the program will create a process of training supervisors on how to listen to their employees and how to point out and assist employees with stressors and burnout. The program will also try changing clinic/hospital procedures, changing the work environment, scheduling changes, and working from home to see how those impact worker well-being. He said:

“By concentrating on the supervisor and employee dyad and that relationship, we believe that we can produce practical, swift, and meaningful change.”

Hurtado believes the program will reduce burnout and stressors among health care professionals. He said:

“We believe that the check-ins will be able to reduce burnout by boosting a culture of trust between leaders and staff and by addressing work stressors.”

Other programs to be expanded under this new grant include a research study on firefighter work schedules as well as their cardiovascular safety. This project will occur naturally and will research ways in which different scheduling systems will address well-being and health for firefighters. Ryan Olson, Ph.D., co-director of OHWC, said this project has great support in the region due to increasing wildfire prevalence. 

The last program the grant will expand is on their COMPASS program — designed for home care workers — and tailor it specifically to workers experiencing chronic pain at work. The program is designed for home care workers and aims to “utilize a peer-led social support group format designed to improve social well-being, reduce the risk of injuries, and promote health among home care workers.”  

OHWC makes all of their resources, research studies, and results on their website. Olson encourages hospitals, clinics, and other workplaces in the region to find resources to better their workplaces on the site. He said:

“We want to make our resources available as broadly as possible through yourworkpath.com and through our outreach program. We just would encourage people to use us to consider and think about ways that they can expand their safety and health programs in the workplace to include addressing employee well-being, stress, and work/family balance topics that maybe are a little broader than what we are used to addressing in the workplace.”