The National Institute for Occupational Health is looking beyond the immediate workplace to ensure the optimal health and safety of all workers

Gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1885, and a year later the city of Johannesburg was founded. Even in those early days, the pioneering miners on the reef suffered from chest diseases, owing to the dusty working conditions. SA became the centre for research into mining-related diseases, acknowledged in 1930 when Johannesburg hosted the first International Silicosis Conference. Out of this, the pneumoconiosis research unit (PRU) was established in 1956. Over the years, the role of the unit expanded beyond diseases in the mining industry to include all aspects of occupational health across sectors. Having celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2016, the PRU became the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH), which is part of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).

A public health institute, the NIOH focuses on providing occupational and environmental health and safety services across the public and private sectors, as well as the informal economy. Its primary goal is to improve and promote workers’ health and safety but, importantly, it also aims to act as a consistent catalyst for a mindset change towards greater prevention. In addition to teaching and training, the institute achieves its goals through its mandate of knowledge generation and innovation, as well as service delivery.

Knowledge generation and innovation
As a WHO-collaborating centre for occupational health, a centre of excellence and a referral institute, the NIOH engages in research that generates and improves local, regional and international knowledge of environmental health and safety. This is in line with national priorities and those of Africa as a whole.

The institute collaborates with local and international institutions of higher learning to redress the legacy of occupational and environmental health and safety issues in the continent.

New knowledge through research is fundamental to a better world of work and the reason national institutes for occupational health around the world regard research as a core function. This research is often interdisciplinary because of the complexity of modern workplaces. The NIOH has a proud research record of more than 50 years. Its research mandate focuses not only on mineral particles and the health of miners but also on diverse topics and research programmes such as nanotechnology and health; asbestos in brake dust, schools and homes; TB prevention in healthcare workers; noise-induced hearing loss and hearing conservation; water quality in hospitals; health effects in populations living around gold mine tailings; and pesticides and adverse health effects, to name a few.

To fulfil its role as a centre of excellence, the institute will continue conducting research and creating publications about both traditional and emerging issues challenging occupational health, for the benefit of workers and stakeholders. The research done by the NIOH is in itself important.

Just as important, however, is the production of the next-generation of skilled professionals. Occupational health and hygiene professionals as well as researchers who acquired their skills at the NIOH are employed all over SA, and in many other parts of the world.

Service delivery
To control hazards, you have to be able to identify and measure them.

The NIOH provides laboratory-based, discipline-specific services to clients in many industrial sectors and government agencies. Its laboratory services include asbestos identification and counting; diagnostic lung pathology; analytical chemistry (for instance, for biological monitoring of specimens); the identification of components of dust (respirable crystalline silica in particular); microbial air sampling; allergy diagnostics; nanoparticles and in-vitro risk assessments.

It offers occupational-related services to specific disciplines such as medicine, hygiene, toxicology, immunology, microbiology and epidemiology.

The NIOH’s unique library and information services provide occupational health professionals and hygienists, industry, labour and academics with information that cannot be resourced elsewhere on the continent.

Leading by example
The WHO defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.

In keeping with this broad definition, occupational health aims to maintain the highest level of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations – primarily by ensuring that workplaces are healthy. This, in turn, means that workplace hazards, which pose significant risks, are promptly and accurately identified and controlled.

The purpose of occupational health, however, is not only to ensure that people who come into the workplace do not become ill, but to safeguard the well-being of workers so they maintain optimal health, and to assist employees with non-occupational illnesses to achieve higher levels of health and wellness.

This assistance could be in the form of programmes, policies and or services that ensure the creation of a ‘healthy workplace’. The NIOH is also very passionate about ensuring that the environmental contaminants emanating from the workplace are monitored, measured and controlled, thus minimising their impact on the communities living in the surrounding areas.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN in September 2015 include decent work, health, gender equity, youth employment, sustainable economies and sustainable environments. The objective was to produce universally applicable goals that balance different dimensions of sustainable development mainly the environmental, the social and the economic.

The SDGs are intended to promote human rights, greater equity, peaceful and inclusive societies, create decent and sustainable jobs, and address the enormous environmental challenges, including climate change. Environmental pollution secondary to industrial activity contributes enormously to the burden of non-communicable diseases in many countries, including SA.

The NIOH believes that this should constitute an important part of deliberations on effective and efficient interventions in the workplace. In future, it plans to contribute more to addressing the decent work deficit in our country and to support efforts related to inequality at work. Furthermore, it is imperative that the NIOH supports all efforts to nurture a culture of sustainable prevention of occupational injuries and diseases, as well as non-communicable diseases that may be exacerbated by working conditions. Important areas that require more attention relate to gender concerns at work and vulnerable employees, such as migrant and disabled workers, as well as subcontractors.

The NIOH plans to take a lead in the management of workplace stress, which it has identified and recognised as an area that requires more study and service development. In light of this, it has established a mental health unit in its occupational medicine and epidemiology division.

The unit has started researching occupational stress in SA, and plans to support employees and employers in their efforts to reduce this increasingly common and serious occupational health problem.

This would involve developing employee assistance programmes aimed at individual workers including strategic approaches to identifying and mitigating risk factors at an organisational level, thereby creating healthy, safe and ultimately sustainable workplaces.

Tel: +27 (0)11 712 6400
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