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A passion for occupational health

In his own words, PRAXES Occupational Health Specialist, Doctor Donald Haigh, recalls how he was first drawn to the occupational health industry. Originally from Halifax, West Riding Yorkshire, England, Haigh moved to Quebec as a child where there was opportunity for his textile worker father in the 1950s. He would go on to study at McGill University and to fall in love with Nova Scotia after working there one summer as a palaeontologist fossil field assistant. In the first of a two part series, he describes how he became a champion of occupational medicine.

Occupational Health and I go back to the 1970s. My background is in mathematics and physics but I went into medicine because of my mother’s encouragement. She was a four foot ten welder and was hell on wheels! She knew that McGill University had a reputable medical school and hounded me for two years until I applied and got in. After my first month, I regretted it because it was dull as dishwater. Conventional and practical medicine didn’t appeal to me so I tried a few different things. Finally, I got a golden opportunity. In Quebec, at that time, the Workers’ Compensation Board put together a program for intervening in high-risk industries and examining the province’s high-risk divisions. They sent teams of doctors, industrial hygienists and occupational health nurses to work with these companies to explore how we could cut down the rates of morbidity connected to work. That was how I first cut my teeth in occupational health.

Next, I went to work at the Department of Community Health and asked them if I would be able to take my time getting my master’s degree in occupational health and they agreed. That was when I discovered that I was really drawn to industrial hygiene (IH) – which is the identification, evaluation and control of health risks in the work place. It’s a form of bio-medical engineering and I like that because it’s pure prevention. You control the agent as opposed to waiting for someone to get sick and trying to fix the situation at that point. I turned my focus to industrial hygiene and continued working for the Quebec government. In 1997, the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia, was looking for a specialist in chemical diseases and I landed the job. I worked with them until 2002 and eventually I moved on with a company called Atlantic Offshore Medical Services which was much more specialized in offshore medical problems. In this position, I was doing regulatory exams and mainly offshore work. Next, I worked for Lifemark Health. They did general occupational medicine and rehabilitation for people who had chronic pain. At that time, the Compensation Board had been paying people with chronic pain and they wanted to have less of these cases on their books. They would send these people to a rehabilitation facility for their chronic pain to try and get them back to work. At Lifemark, I worked with people who were expert pain specialists. At this point, Susan Helliwell and John Ross recruited me to come and work for them at PRAXES. We hoped to develop a clinical-based occupational medicine practice, working as an add-on to their on-call EMwerx software system.

DHaigh

Embracing prevention

I’m kind of on the left wing of occupational medicine. I want to prevent injuries and illnesses and there’s not a lot of money to be made in that. You make money in therapeutics. I’m in a trade where money and health are often in direct opposition to one another. When people see me coming they say – “Uh-oh, here comes trouble. He’s going to give us a long list of things to do and find everything we’ve swept under the rug!” About a fifth of our corporate customers recognize the inherent logic in the power and the importance of their labour force. Usually, these are small family businesses or large technical companies who realize the complexity of their industrial process and that they require specialists on every level from the guys in suits to the guys in blue dungarees. They know that these people are a fundamental part of their business and it becomes of interest to protect employees’ health. About a fifth of our customers will hire me to solve safety problems and industrial hygiene contamination problems and put together medical surveillance schemes. The rest of the time I deal with regulatory problems, regulatory examinations with seafarers, divers’ examinations and to make sure workers are healthy enough to do these high-risk, important jobs. Additionally, I offer my expertise to a company on how they should deal with a worker’s illness or injury. I don’t usually work for the employer but rather encourage the employer to work with the Occupational Health and Safety Committee. The Occupational Health Act is there to guide them.

Over the years, I’ve come to learn that work is a village and if someone in your village gets ill, it’s an ecological failure. We have all failed that person. The colleague standing by him at the machine right up to the president at the company, all of us have failed this person and it should not have happened.

Not always a popular profession

There is a phenomena of presentee-ism, which is people working while they are hurt or in pain, and it can aggravate their medical situation even further. Industrial hygiene is prevention and I believe in prevention. Now, prevention is becoming very popular among physicians as well through trying to get people to stop smoking, to manage stress better and to stay at a healthy weight. Those things are important and they are politically very acceptable. Telling a boss that there is too much noise in the air and that’s why he has 15 deafness claims so he should get working on the engineering as well as personal protection and reducing noise levels – that’s very high profile and not always so accepted. It’s not the same as trying to get someone’s cholesterol down. A sawmill owner in Quebec once ran me off his property with a gun. His sawmill was the only industry in town and he didn’t want to hear what I had to say. The next day, I came back with the police and the labour inspector and finally then he decided to do something about his workers’ needs. Occupational health is not always a popular business.

Susan Helliwell and John Ross recognize occupational health as a valuable service. I think they were hoping to get me to cool my jets a little and I did try! One of the key sayings in occupational medicine is: “a worker who isn’t working is ten percent sicker that a worker who is working” and that holds true 30 years out. Ultimately, I am a big champion of occupational health. I may look like Santa Claus but my intervention in many people’s lives is in their working lives. Many workers would opt for something called risk pay and I will not hear of that – I am trying to make jobs safer.

By Dr. Donald Haigh, B.Sc, M.Sc, MDCM, CIME, FCBOM

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