Gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1885 and just one year later the city of Johannesburg was founded. Even in these early days, the pioneering miners of the reef suffered from chest disease due to 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 on 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 other sectors of the mining industry but to look at all aspects of occupational health. On the brink of its 60th anniversary it is now the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH), which is part of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).

The essential role of the NIOH is to be a national resource within the NHLS and to support government, enterprises and occupational health services with interventions in enhancing workers’ health and safety. The strengths of the NIOH are its multidisciplinary team of experts in safety, occupational and environmental health, backed up by laboratories that give it the capability of measuring and analysing occupational hazardous exposures.

In order to control hazards you have to be able to identify and measure them. The NIOH provides laboratory-based, discipline-specific and information services to clients in many industrial sectors and government agencies. 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 in-vitro risk assessments. Among the discipline-specific services are occupational medicine, occupational hygiene, occupational toxicology, immunology and microbiology, and occupational epidemiology.

Information services are a core service also 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, hygienists, industry, labour and academics with information that cannot be resourced elsewhere on the continent.

The world of work is complex partly because there are so many hazards. No one knows how many chemicals are used in industry, but it surely exceeds 100 000. The health effects of only a small proportion of these chemicals have been studied, and the effects of mixtures of these chemicals are largely unknown. Also, new technologies bring the potential for new hazards. Nanotechnology is a rapidly growing new technology which is being intensively researched at the NIOH. Hydraulic fracturing is growing globally and is possibly on our doorstep, bringing known and unknown health and safety hazards with it.

It is also complex because the context is important. Each country has circumstances which make work different. We mine and process many minerals, we have deep mines, high rates of tuberculosis and HIV, a young population but also an aging workforce in some respects; for example the average age of South African artisans is over 50. The different contexts mean that sustainable solutions to prevent occupational injuries and diseases have to be researched and tailored to meet specific needs.

New knowledge through research is thus fundamental to a better world of work and the reason why 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 research done by the NIOH is in itself important. But as important is the production of the next generation of skilled professionals. All over South Africa, and in many other parts of the world, are occupational health and hygiene professionals and researchers who acquired their skills at the NIOH.

Improvements in peoples’ social and economic circumstances have a big impact on improving the health of individuals and communities. Having a decent job is the most important way of achieving these improvements as a decent job can lead to better health of workers and their families.  But insecure and hazardous work has the opposite effect, leading to poor health of workers and negative consequences on families and communities, as is seen in South African rural labour sending areas. It also has a negative impact on the overall economy of our country.
We need to ensure that work promotes good health. To do this we need to encourage decent work and to identify and control the workplace factors that lead to illness, injury and environmental damage.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are intended to inform the global development agenda for the coming years. Decent work is part of this development agenda and has synergies with several other development issues such as sustainable economies, public health, youth employment, gender equity, air pollution and climate change.

In 2016, the NIOH will be celebrating 60 years of a rich history that has contributed to health and safety in the workplace. Looking forward, the NIOH plans to contribute more to addressing the decent work deficit in our country and also 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 exacerbated by conditions of work. Important areas that will require more attention relates to gender concerns at work; workers who may be considered more vulnerable including migrant workers, subcontracted workers and workers with disabilities. The NIOH plans to take a lead in establishing a service to assist professionals with ethical considerations in occupational health and safety.

Article published in the Mining Prospectus   |   Issue 25 – December 2015   |   Cape Media  ISSN 2225-871X
Author: Prof Jim Phillips, NIOH Pathology Division    |    Image: Provided by Cape Media in the publicaiton