Who We Are
The National Health Laboratory Service's (NHLS) Institute for Occupational Health (IOH) is South Africa’s major centre for occupational health development, training, service support and research, with a staff of 120 people of whom half are scientists.
The National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) has existed in various forms since the 1950s. The South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR) was founded to study diseases in mine workers, particularly pneumoconiosis and tuberculosis. The delayed onset of these occupational diseases was recognised in relation to compensation and South Africa introduced post mortem examination of cardiorespiratory organs of all deceased miners and ex-miners. The need for expertise in occupational pulmonary pathology led to a pneumoconiosis unit being established within SAIMR to do both post-mortems and research. This major statutory function of the NIOH, namely post-mortem examination of the cardiorespiratory organs of all deceased miners and ex-miners for compensation and research purposes, continues half a century later to provide unique opportunities for advancement of global knowledge through service-based research, publication and training.
A specific pneumoconiosis research unit (PRU) was formed in 1956 within the Chamber of Mines (CoM) and supported financially by the CoM and the Department of Mines. The PRU attained international attention in the 1960s when Dr Wagner’s work led to the identification of mesothelioma as an occupational disease linked to asbestos exposure. The functions of the PRU broadened from pathological research to include physiology, biochemistry and occupational hygiene. Later the need was identified for the unit to investigate occupational diseases in all industries, not merely in mining. From 1970, the Medical Research Council (MRC) took over the unit which was then called the National Research Institute for Occupational Diseases (NRIOD). However, the evolution was not complete as the MRC research institute was limited to doing only research and so could not provide occupational health services such as risk assessments and advice which became increasingly sought by industry, labour and the State. The NRIOD was therefore taken into the Department of Health as the National Centre for Occupational Health (NCOH), which became involved in the wider field of occupational health service, training and research.
The final step has been the establishment of the NIOH within the National Health Laboratory Service with its funding from the Department of Health, which is a major stakeholder in the agenda. NIOH has become an internationally recognised national resource for developing and supporting effective occupational health services in South Africa.