SASOM and African representation at the OHHW2019 Conference in Hamburg


The 11th Conference on Occupational Health for Health Workers (OHHW2019) was held at the Grand Elysée Hotel in Hamburg, Germany, from 22 to 24 October 2019. The event was a joint effort between the International Commission on Occupational Health’s (ICOH) Scientific Committee (SC) on Occupational Health for Health Workers (OHHW), the ICOH SC on Women, Health and Work (WHW), the ICOH SC on Occupational and Environmental Dermatoses, and the ICOH Working Group on Occupational Infectious Agents (WG OIA). The International Social Security Association’s (ISSA) Section of Healthcare and Welfare was a contributor, and the German Institution for Statutory Accident Insurance and Prevention in Health and Welfare Services (BGW – Berufsgenossenschaft für Gesundheitsdienst und Wohlfahrtspflege) provided further support and financial sponsorship. The Conference was endorsed by the following organisations: ICOH (Italy); the International Labour Organization (ILO, Switzerland); the European Agency of Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA, Spain); and the French National Research and Safety Institute for the Prevention of Occupational Accidents and Diseases (INRS – Institut National de Recherche et de Sécurité).
The Chair of the Conference Organising Committee, Dr Albert Nienhaus (University Centres Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE), Centre for Epidemiology and Health Services Research for Health Professionals (CVcare), and member of both the SC OHHW and WG OIA), is to be heartily congratulated. Along with his team in Hamburg and the leadership of the SC OHHW – Dr Gwen Brachman (Chair, USA) and Dr Antoon de Schryver (Secretary, Belgium) – Dr Nienhaus was responsible for the efficient planning and organisation of all aspects of the Conference in a superb venue, and for the diversity, richness and merit of the scientific content of the Conference programme. Dr Nienhaus extended special thanks to ICOH members,
Dr Acran Salmen-Navarro from the USA (who leads the migration component within the ICOH WG on Future of Decent Work), Dr Igor Bello from Venezuela (Secretary of the SC WHW), and Prof. Mary Ross from South Africa (Chair of the WG OIA, University of the Witwatersrand, and ExCo and Life Member of the South African Society of Occupational Medicine – SASOM), for their valuable contributions towards the development of the Conference scientific programme.

‘Hamburg for Health Workers’ – L to R: Dr Acran Salmen-Navarro (Lead of the migration component within the ICOH WG on Future of Decent Work, USA); Dr Gwen Brachman (Chair of the ICOH SC on Occupational Health for Health Workers, USA); Ms Claudina Nogueira (ICOH Vice President for SCs and SASOM ExCo Member, South Africa); Dr Albert Nienhaus (Chair of the Conference Organising Committee, Germany); and Dr Igor Bello (Secretary of the ICOH SC on Women, Health and Work, Venezuela) Photograph: Dr Viviana Gómez-Sánchez (Costa Rica)

Approximately 190 participants from 41 countries attended the Conference, which was themed Global shortage of health workers. It focussed on critical global issues confronting all health workers in these trying times of economic, political and environmental challenges, which often result in less than ideal working conditions coupled with inadequate access to healthcare. Although healthcare is the fastest-growing sector, globally, there is an alarming and rising shortage of healthcare workers, most notably in countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. A major contributor to this shortage is unsafe working conditions, leading to occupational disease and injury, with significant morbidity and mortality. There are increasing demands placed on the healthcare workforce which, in turn, lead to more unsafe working conditions and practices. Hence, protecting the health and safety of healthcare workers, 80% of whom are women, is critical for the delivery of quality health services and patient care.

From the outset, it became clear that a strong focus area would emerge from the event, namely, the challenges that are an everyday reality for health workers in the face of migration and conflict situations all over the world. These challenges impact on the ability of health workers to provide quality patient care and health services, particularly related to providing healthcare to displaced persons and displaced health workers.

The Conference format of keynote addresses and panel discussions, presented by experts from around the world, included six parallel sessions over the second and third days, covering the topics of ergonomics in the prevention of musculoskeletal conditions in health workers; psychosocial exposure in health workers; improving occupational safety and health systems and women, health and work (a session organised and coordinated by the ICOH SC WHW); Vision Zero – culture of prevention approaches and implementation; and tuberculosis (TB) in health workers.
The ICOH WG OIA, chaired by Prof. Mary Ross, organised and coordinated a parallel session on the second day, titled ‘Occupational infectious agents: Health and humanitarian workers and beyond’, which was co-chaired by Prof. Mary Ross and another WG OIA member, Dr Robert Orford (USA). This session included a presentation by Kenyan national, Mr Franklin Muchiri (ILO, Switzerland), who gave an overview of the ILO development of a biological hazards guideline, currently underway as a collaboration between the ILO and the ICOH WG OIA. Other topics presented in this parallel session were: interventions to prevent occupational exposure to blood-borne pathogens for health workers (China); an evaluation of the methodology of medical safety devices (Spain); the ethical issues around influenza vaccinations among health workers (Belgium); a European survey of hepatitis B vaccination policies for health workers; blood and body fluid exposure and preventive strategies among health workers in a tertiary hospital (India); a country profile and challenges associated with occupational infections (Romania); and an embodied exercise, targeting stigma towards health workers in southern Africa (ILO, Canada, and South Africa).

‘Health and humanitarian workers and beyond’ – The ICOH Working Group on Occupational Infectious Agents (WG OIA) organised a parallel session at the Conference. L to R: Presenter Mr Franklin Muchiri (ILO, Switzerland); presenter Mr Simphiwe Mabhele (ILO, South Africa); Prof. Mary Ross (Chair of the ICOH WG OIA, session presenter and co-chair; SASOM ExCo and Life Member, South Africa); and Dr Robert Orford (WG OIA member and session co-chair) Photograph: Claudina Nogueira (South Africa)

Dr Albert Nienhaus stated that he was particularly proud of having been able to invite experts from Africa and Latin America to give their testimonials about occupational health for health workers in crises, in their own settings. Their inputs were further enriched by contributions from occupational health professionals from North America, Asia and Europe.

Dr Tawanda Nherera (SHEQ Manager at BOC Gases, Zimbabwe) delivered one of the more sobering keynote addresses, on the working conditions in a healthcare system in crisis, citing the case of Zimbabwe. He stated that, due to the rapid decline in living standards in that country, skilled health workers have left in search of better and safer work opportunities elsewhere, leaving behind inexperienced personnel. In addition, the country is facing a critical shortage of drugs, medical equipment and tools required by health workers. The working environment, accreditation systems, competence matrices and “learning conditions have also deteriorated, with very few health institutions subscribing to international standards and management systems for quality healthcare delivery and occupational health best practices for their employees”. There are many other countries in similar health crises.

Emeritus Prof. Rodney Ehrlich, from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, delivered a stimulating keynote presentation on protecting health workers from TB in high-risk settings, and the need for a comprehensive approach to dealing with this challenge. His presentation was a fitting preamble for the parallel session on TB in health workers, which followed the next day, and included two presentations by South African colleagues.

Two workshops were held before and after the Conference:

1. ‘HealthWISE’ – Work Improvement in Health Services (21 October 2019) was facilitated by experts from the ILO, South Africa (Mr Simphiwe Mabhele), the University of British Columbia, Canada (Ms Elizabeth Wilcox) and the South African National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) and the University of Pretoria (Dr Muzimkhulu Zungu). HealthWISE is a participatory quality improvement methodology for health facilities. It encourages managers and staff to work together to improve workplaces, procedures and practices.

2. ‘Prevention of Violence in Healthcare’ (25 October 2019) was facilitated by experts from Belgium (Dr Ellen Delvaux) and Germany (Dr Kai Hochscheid). The workshop addressed the problems and dynamics of violence in the healthcare sector with the aim of identifying and evaluating potential encounters before they occur, to reduce the risk of workplace violence.

Ms Claudina Nogueira (University of Pretoria and SASOM ExCo Member) was invited by the Conference organisers to represent ICOH officially, in her capacity of ICOH Vice President for SCs. She co-chaired a parallel session and attended the business meetings of the SC OHHW and WG OIA.

As one of the Conference outputs, all participants voted for the development and promulgation of an official Conference Declaration, emerging from the various presentations and testimonials on violence against health workers, and the ‘weaponisation’ of health facilities becoming a major problem in many areas around the world, and particularly in areas of conflict.

The proceedings of the OHHW2019 Conference will be published in a special issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, in August 2020. The Conference presentations will also be available in due course, on the Conference website:


Good wishes for the Festive Season

SASOM wishes all its members and their families and communities “Compliments of the Festive Season”, and healthy and safe holidays. May the New Year 2020 be happy, hopeful, successful and rewarding for you and your loved ones.


Report by:
Claudina Nogueira
SASOM ExCo Member and ICOH Vice President
Prof. Daan Kocks
SASOM Chair and ICOH National Secretary for South Africa
Jaco Botha
Project Coordinator in the SASOM Office

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