Role & Function
The primary responsibility of NIOH is to develop and support occupational health initiatives to improve and maintain the health of the South African workforce, which is estimated to be about 11.5 million workers.
With a relatively small core staff of less than 100, fulfilling a meaningful role requires focusing on priority exposures and diseases and collaborating with all national occupational health practitioners to start to support all elements of the occupational health system, including the inspectorates, public sector and enterprise level occupational health services.
The successful role of the NIOH as a national, regional and international player is facilitated by the multi-disciplinary nature and high level of skills and academic achievement of the staff. This enables NIOH to deliver a comprehensive referral service, integrated teaching and multifaceted long-term research. The multi-disciplinary teams at NIOH also create an ideal milieu for capacity development both within the institution and for occupational health practitioners who form a national, regional and international network, which in turn fosters international links and scientific exchange within a number of areas of expertise.
International and regional linkages are necessary to maintain expertise and knowledge of developments and best practices in occupational health and to bring resources and skills to the country and the region. Ongoing multinational contact at an individual, semi-formal level is complemented by formal bilateral agreements with similar institutions overseas for exchange of personnel, training and collaborative research. The models of collaboration vary from electronic networking to funding research and personnel development and collaboration in multinational initiatives.
Functions of NIOH
NIOH has traditionally focused on underserved workers and those without access to occupational health care, in addition to providing a referral centre for access to expertise in a wide variety of occupational health disciplines. Financed by public funds, NIOH has served as a centre of excellence within the public health system with emphasis on researching and finding solutions to major occupational health problems, particularly those pertaining to vulnerable groups. There has also been an advocacy role and involvement in the development of legislation, which ranks internationally with the most advanced for worker protection, and policy implementation and evaluation. Within the NHLS, the NIOH is a resource to various stakeholders involved in occupational health including the State in its broader context of government departments and academic institutions, labour and industry within South Africa as well as in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The strategic functions of the NIOH fall into eight major areas:
- The fundamental reason for the establishment of the institute in the mid-twentieth century remains a statutory function of NIOH. The autopsy service is provided under the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (ODMWA) to diagnose compensable occupational cardio-respiratory disease in deceased miners. Since 1975, data have been captured in a unique database, PATHAUT, and since 1998, these data have been analysed and reported annually.
- A major role of the NIOH is multidisciplinary teaching and training in occupational health to develop professionals and provide access to training. Capacity development of professionals and specialists in areas of scarce skills such as occupational health research and service delivery has been a core function over many years. Academic courses, continuous professional development seminars and in-service training have all addressed the shortage of skills. More recently, a postgraduate programme for occupational hygienists has been developed by the NIOH as a track in a Masters of Public Health degree, to complement the longstanding postgraduate Diploma in Occupational Health for the medical profession.
- The NIOH houses South Africa’s national reference library in occupational health, serves as the national ILO-CIS Centre (International Labour Organisation International Occupational Health and Safety Information Centre) and the SADC Clearing House, and provides a national resource centre with regular reporting and consultancy.
- There are reference and specialised laboratories for analytical chemistry, toxicology, electron microscopy, immunology, microbiology and occupational hygiene services, so providing a wide range of analytical, measurement and national quality assurance capacity.
- Health hazard evaluations are focused on priority exposures through application of occupational hygiene expertise to assess risks.
- NIOH co-ordinates ongoing sentinel occupational risk and disease surveillance and the development of reliable occupational health indicators.
- Research is focused on priority occupational health problems, with about 30 concurrent research projects contributing to identification of occupational health problems, the development of effective occupational health services and prevention of occupational disease.
- Advisory services range from expert representation on national and international advisory and technical committees to consultations to individual workers and practitioners or professional groupings to promote knowledge and develop occupational health services.