Promoting sustainable prevention in occupational health and safety

Online since 22.03.2018 • Filed under Health • From Issue 7 - March to August 2018 page(s) 67-69
Promoting sustainable prevention in occupational health and safety

To control hazards you must be able to identify and measure them. The National Institute for Occupational Health provides laboratory-based, discipline-specific specialised services to industrial clients and government to offer occupational and environmental health and safety services for the public, private and informal sectors.


As Early as 1885, the pioneering miners of the reef suffered from chest disease because of the dusty conditions in which they worked. South Africa became the centre for research into mining-related diseases and this was acknowledged in 1930 when Johannesburg hosted the first International Silicosis Conference. Following this work, the Pneumoconiosis


Research Unit (PRU) came into being in 1956. Over the years the role of this unit has expanded not just to investigate disease in the mining industry but to look at all aspects of occupational health across all industrial sectors. Following its 60th anniversary in 2016, the institute is now named the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) and is a division of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).


The NIOH is a public health institute that focuses on providing occupational and environmental health services across the public and private sectors, and the informal economy. This is primarily to improve and promote workers’ health and safety but very importantly to be a consistent catalyst for a mind-set change towards greater prevention in Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety. The institute achieves this through its mandate of knowledge generation and innovation, teaching and training activities, and service delivery.


Knowledge generation and innovation

As a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Occupational Health, a centre of excellence and a referral institute, the NIOH engages in activities that generate and improve local, regional and international knowledge through research in the fields of occupational and environmental health and safety. This is in line with national priorities and those of the African region.


The Institute collaborates with local and international institutions of higher learning to redress the legacy of occupational and environmental health issues throughout Africa.


New knowledge through research is fundamental to a better world of work and the reason why global national institutes for occupational health around the world have 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 over 50 years. During this time, it has expanded its research mandate to not only focus on mineral particles and the health of miners but also to include diverse topics and research programmes. To fulfil its role as a centre of excellence, the Institute continues to conduct research and create publications on traditional and emerging issues challenging occupational health for the benefit of workers and stakeholders.


Service delivery

To control hazards you must be able to identify and measure them. The NIOH provides laboratory-based, discipline specific specialised services (including advisory and information services) to clients in many industrial sectors, government departments and trade unions.


The Institute’s laboratory services include asbestos identification and counting; diagnostic lung pathology; analytical chemistry (e.g. for biological monitoring specimens); the identification of components of dusts (respirable crystalline silica in particular); microbial air sampling; allergy diagnostics; nanoparticles and invitro risk assessments. Among the discipline-specific services are occupational medicine, occupational hygiene, occupational toxicology, immunology and microbiology, and occupational epidemiology.

Information services are also a core service of many national institutes of health around the world and the NIOH is no exception. Its unique library and information services provide occupational health professionals, occupational hygienists, industry, labour and academics with information that cannot be resourced elsewhere on the continent.


Leading by example

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing 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. This is primarily done by ensuring that workplaces are healthy.


This, in turn, means that workplace hazards (which pose significant risks) are promptly and accurately identified and controlled to protect the health of workers. However, the sole purpose of occupational health is not only to ensure that people who come into the workplace do not acquire illness, but also to safeguard the well-being of workers so that they maintain optimal health, and even to assist employees with non-occupational related illnesses to achieve higher levels of health and wellness.


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in September 2015 include decent work, good health and wellbeing, gender equity, youth employment, sustainable economies, and sustainable environments among their goals. Its objective was to produce a set of 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 noncommunicable diseases in many countries including our own. The NIOH strongly believes that this should constitute an important part of deliberations on effective and efficient interventions at workplaces.


Looking ahead

The NIOH plans to contribute more to addressing the decent work deficit in our country and to supporting efforts related to inequality at work. Furthermore, the NIOH needs to support 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 conditions of work. Important areas that require more attention relate to gender concerns at work, workers who may be considered more vulnerable, including migrant workers, subcontracted workers and workers with disabilities. The Institute plans to take a lead in the management of workplace stress as it has identified and recognised that this area requires more study and service development. As a result, the NIOH has established a Mental Health Unit in its Occupational Medicine and Epidemiology Division. This unit has begun research into occupational stress in South Africa and plans to support both employees and employers in their efforts to reduce this increasingly common, and serious, occupational health problem. This involves developing programmes and approaches to identify and mitigate risk factors at organisational and individual levels to create workplaces that are healthy, safe and ultimately sustainable.


National Institute for Occupational Health – NIOH

T          +27 (0)11 712 6400



Issue 7 - March to August 2018

Issue 7 - March to August 2018

This article was featured on page 67-69 of SABI Magazine Issue 7 - March to August 2018 .

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