THUNDER BAY – A research institute at Lakehead University will vastly expand its work on occupational health and safety, launching several new regionally-focused studies on issues like mental health stigma and injury prevention with millions in new provincial funding.
The EPID@Work research institute will receive $5.5 million over five years to support that work, the provincial government announced Thursday.
That will support a major expansion, said Vicki Kristman, director of the institute and an associate professor in the department of health sciences.
“It’ll be huge,” she said. “It will definitely double if not triple our output.”
The funding will allow the institute to hire 11 new positions, she said, including two new faculty hires and five research associates, as well as supporting graduate student positions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of addressing mental health and psychological injuries and disability in the workplace, she said. In a survey, 40 per cent of local employers identified mental health as a priority issue.
“This is an area I know a lot of workplaces are interested in – the pandemic has really caused a much needed increase in that," Kristman said.
Even before the pandemic, it was estimated around 20 per cent of workers were dealing with a mental health issue, she noted.
It’s hoped the research the institute conducts in the coming years will help address that, along with issues of physical injury prevention, with a focus on vulnerable workers like recent immigrants.
“As part of this five-year project, the EPID@Work Research Institute will help employers in Northern Ontario reduce mental health stigma in their workplaces, improve support for workers, and ensure managers have the tools for the early identification of mental health symptoms,” said the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development in a statement.
The funding will have a local impact beyond campus, Kristman said, as EPID@Work significantly expands its work with local workplaces. Much of the research will be conducted with a regional focus.
The institute, founded in 2018, has identified three projects for the first year of the funding.
The first will focus on mental health stigma in the workplace, the second awareness of occupational health and safety issues and tools among recent immigrants, and the third hurdles to implementation of occupational health and safety practices for small businesses.
In the future, the institute is considering a long-term cohort study on mental health in the region, Kristman said.
EPID@Work is also planning to build community-based committees to help identify priority areas for research, she noted.
Lakehead president Moira McPherson welcomed the new funding, saying it will have a significant regional impact.
“Focusing on Northern Ontario’s workforce, with emphasis on Indigenous communities and equity seeking groups, the centre will conduct high-quality, community-based, transdisciplinary research in the areas of work-related injury, both physical and mental, and disability prevention,” she said.
Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton said the five-year project is geared to have a real impact for regional employers.
“Every worker in Northern Ontario should feel safe and supported on the job, and they deserve to come home safe to their loved ones after a hard day’s work,” he said in a statement. “Our government is working for workers by proudly investing in the EPID@Work Research Institute at Lakehead University so they can deliver solutions that will create lasting improvements to worker safety.”
The funding will also support “knowledge mobilization and implementation,” research meant to gauge how effectively knowledge generated through academic studies on occupational health and safety is being shared and implemented in workplaces.
That will help gauge how much research like hers is actually having an impact on the ground, and could identify improvements, Kristman said.