NIOSH Malaysia To Bring OSH Levels To Greater Height.
NIOSH Malaysia was set up in 1992 with a RM50 million endowment fund from the government and Social Security Organisation to help create a safe and healthy work culture in the country.
AboutSafety.com reporter Zoe Phoon interviews National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Malaysia. Executive Director, Ir Dr Johari Basri on the institute's projects and plans to bring OSH levels to greater height.
AboutSafety/Zoe Phoon: What are NIOSH Malaysia's current projects on workplace safety and health? How would they benefit the workforce?
Johari Basri: Our four core businesses are training, consultancy, research and development, and information dissemination. As occupational safety and health (OSH) standards are relatively new in the country, NIOSH Malaysia, through its core businesses, have benefited the workforce in terms of OSH.
The turning point was the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1994 (OSHA 94). Before that, industries were more concerned about the "hardware" aspects of OSH - for example equipment safety, how to prevent injuries at the workplace, how to ensure that pressure vessels design are safe, how to handle hazardous machinery like boilers, and so forth.
But since 1994, industries had begun to also look after the "management" aspects which are part of the safety and health system at workplaces like safety and health policy, training workers on safety and health matters, conducting medical surveillance and record keeping. Industries now realise that looking after the hardware alone is not enough; there's also the need to integrate the software within the workplace through a sound safety and health management system.
Our current activities continue to emphasise the training of workers for industries to meet the requirements of legislations, for instance OSHA 94. For example, we help those factories required by law to employ full-time safety and health officers (SHOs) by providing training to enable their employees become full-fledge SHOs. Another recent training involved meeting the OSHA 94 requirement for a chemical health risk assessor at the workplace, i.e. an industrial hygiene technician who's competent enough to make proper assessment of hazards due to chemical exposures. These are two examples of training provided by NIOSH Malaysia to enable our clients meet legal requirements.
We also conduct training for other industry needs like working in confined spaces. We are also implementing contractor safety passport system as a means to ensure workers of subcontractors working in large factories (such as electronics plants of multinational corporations) have undergone OSH training before they're allowed to carry out contracting jobs.
In consultancy, we're providing services to industries, for example, to assess workplace hazards in order to prepare appropriate control measures for certain tasks as well as to modify designs of existing systems for a better work environment. We're now carrying out some design modifications relating to ergonomics improvements for the control room in offshore platforms.
As to information dissemination, our computer laboratory provides computer-based training (CBT) to enable people to learn more about OSH via an interactive medium. The lab also disseminates OSH information not only to workers but also to the public and schoolchildren.
In R&D, we've collaborated with institutions of higher learning like Universiti of Technology Mara, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in OSH-related areas. They include the effects of heat stress on the reproductive system of women working in hot environments like steel mills, and the safety and ergonomics aspects of the design of grass cutters.
ZP: What are NIOSH Malaysia's projects planned for the future?
JB: There's a strong need for NIOSH Malaysia to have an OSH lab to support our four core businesses more effectively to industries. For this, we're building our expertise and equipping our lab with the latest OSH equipment. We're also planning to bring our lab to international standards. We want to be able to monitor and analyse samples of contaminants at the workplace to better manage the safety and health of workers.
Currently, we're in the midst of a JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) programme which started in November 2000. Under this programme, JICA is providing funds, experts and equipment in the areas of occupational health and occupational hygiene.
For the long term, Japanese experts in the areas of OSH, industrial hygiene and ergonomics will work with us for three years to achieve our objectives. For the short-term (duration of two weeks to three months), about 20 JICA personnel are available to help us set up the equipment and in knowledge transfer. On our side, we're sending similar staff to Japan for OSH training.
One of the first activities involves JICA consultants designing the local exhaust ventilation (LEV) lab. When completed in 2002, it'll be the first full-fledge LEV lab in Malaysia. LEV is a means to remove hazardous substances, like organic solvents and mineral dust, from the work environment.
As to future consultancy projects, we want to further extend our services to the small and medium industries (SMIs) and MNCs so that they need not turn to foreign consultants to solve their OHS problems. This way, it'll be more relevant and cost-effective to them.
In the information dissemination area, we want to introduce e-learning of OSH subjects. E-learning, for example, could be used for bridging course between students that possess varying degrees of experience on OSH matters. It also represents an excellent means to introduce OSH matters to students who are about to enter the job market.
The e-learning facility will also educate them on workplace hazards and their OSH rights in term of protection provided by their employers at their workplace.
We also plan to set up an OSH hotline by year-end to answer questions on OSH and to give advice on possible solutions to OSH problems.
ZP: Does NIOSH Malaysia have a masterplan to lead OSH research, say, into the next decade, especially when the manufacturing sector is to remain an engine of growth under the Eighth Malaysia Plan (2001-2005) or 8MP?
JB: We definitely have a masterplan for 2001 to 2005 covering our core businesses, and this ties up closely with our five-year financial plan. Our target is to be self-sufficient by 2005. This means our operating income would be able to cover operating expenses, leaving our investment income solely for development purposes. Currently, we're about 80 per cent self-sufficient.
ZP: What are your priority areas of research and why the need for them?
JB: One priority area is SMIs because they constitute a hefty 80 percent of the country's industries/workplaces. Moreover, OSH conditions at SMIs are not satisfactory. We need to study how best to help them via technical and financial packages.
Then again, SMIs lack funds, so giving them technical input alone is not enough. We also have to give them financial input, and for this we need to get financial assistance from agencies the Small and Medium Industries Development Corp (SMIDEC) and banks. In addition, we need to get tax exemption from the Government for SMIs for their purchase of OSH equipment. Currently, the SMIs are far behind the MNCs in terms of OSH.
Another priority area of research is finding an acceptable OSH accounting system to show company management that money spent on OSH will result in returns just as good as in the other business segments in terms of productivity, less compensation pay out to injured workers and less damage to plant and machinery. But this is not specific to Malaysia; it's a worldwide issue.
ZP: Women constitute a significant portion of the workforce. Manufacturing has the largest share of female workers of 27.3 percent in 2000 while the wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants have 22.3 percent. Also, the number of women workers in the professional and technical sector has risen to 13.5 percent. Does NIOSH Malaysia have any special programmes to enhance OSH at their workplaces?
JB: We've involved indirectly in programmes to make women aware of the issues of HIV/AIDS and sexual harassment at the workplace. In terms of research, we've conducted a study on the health effects of working in hot environments (for example, steel mills) on the female reproductive system.
NIOSH Malaysia recognises the contribution of women workers. We'll identify more OSH areas specific to women workers and try to find solutions to the problems. They include ergonomic problems on assembly lines, eye strain from continuous working on VDUs and lifting heavy objects in the workplace. Nurses, for example, having to lift and transfer patients which can result in backache and muscle strain. Extensive use of mechanical devices for such work instead of doing it manually can prevent this.
ZP: Is NIOSH Malaysia collaborating with industry partners to develop new strategies to reduce exposures to potentially hazardous substances at workplaces?
JB: We're working with them to reduce exposures to hazardous substances like mineral dust in the cement industry and quarries, and to reduce exposures to chemicals in the electronics industry.
ZP: How about the fact that information and communications technology (ICT) is to be a new engine of growth for the economy under the 8MP, particularly where the nature of jobs and workplace environment is different from that of manufacturing?
Also, with the drive for a knowledge economy, how do you see the work environment in terms of OSH hazards facing workers?
JB: There's going to be increased use of computers and the nature of work (like sitting still for hours), whether you work at home or in the office, will result in ergonomic problems relating to posture repetitive movements and eye strain.
Also, increased use of robotics/mechanisation will pose safety problems as people can get hurt doing maintenance work. Consequently, OSH matters will have to be addressed differently.
ZP: What can we do about them?
JB: The introduction of new technologies and systems will introduce new hazards. We've to identify the hazards and provide cost-effective solutions. At the same time, the physical manufacturing sector of the economy has to go on … we can't eat virtual food, we've got to eat real food.