Can the workplace environment lead to ill-health?

8 Jul 2019 - 14:00

Ironically this is the question that motivates Dr Itumeleng Ntatamala to wake and go to work every day. Ntatamala, a medical doctor, specialising in Occupational Medicine at the University of Cape Town, was recently named in the Mail & Guardian’s prestigious list of 200 Young South African trail-blazers to watch out for.

He was selected from amongst 6000 outstanding nominees, under the age of 35, across South Africa. He says he was “honoured” to make the top 200 as it affirms his belief that young people can make a valuable contribution toward building and improving our country. “There’s obviously a lot to learn… but it is an indication that you are on the right path and that one should continue despite the challenges to do our very best, not only for the patients that we see, but in general, within the country”.

Ntatamala graduated as a medical doctor from UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences in 2012, completed a Master’s Degree in Occupational Health at the University of Birmingham and is currently studying towards a Masters in Medicine degree and working in the Department of Occupational Medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital and in the Health Impact Assessment Unit of the Western Cape Department of Health.

Occupational health, which is concerned with the study, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and ill-health attributable to work is an often neglected area within the health sciences, according to Ntatamala. “Very often, when patients present to us, we focus on the disease or illness that they come to us with, but hardly ever ask if what they are presenting with could actually be attributable to work or related to the workplace”.

Occupational health awareness is particularly relevant in the South African context where unemployment rates are very high and there is a tendency amongst some employers to ignore the health and safety of their employees, says Ntatamala. He says that while all workers in South Africa are exposed to a variety of hazards, one of the most under-reported are psychosocial hazards and the problems associated with mental health in the workplace.

His current research focuses on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) amongst Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel who not only work under enormous pressure but are also faced with daily threats to their lives – including the risk of being violently attacked while on duty.

Ntatamala credits the University of Cape Town as playing a vital role in his success and specifically. He recalls a lecture he attended during his second year as a medical student in the Faculty of Health Sciences, for piquing his interest in occupational medicine and the importance of understanding how work and the workplace can impact on health.

After completing his training in occupational medicine, he aims to complete a PhD further exploring the connection between health and work and advocating for patient’s rights within this area.

He is optimistic about the future of young people in South Africa and believes that young people should grab opportunities that arise. “I think the future for young people is bright but I also believe that it really is dependent on what we do as young people. I’m always inspired by the Fees Must Fall movement and how young people were able, through persistence, to actually change the way in which funding within higher education has now evolved.

“This is a reminder that the voice of young people should be listened to and that we have a great future ahead of us if we empower our young people and give them opportunities, and if we enable them to understand the challenges that we have presently. But more importantly, how one can use these challenges and the past, and the history that we have gone through to chart the way forward for our country”.

The Division of Occupational Medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital is one of the few referral clinics in the country offering specialist services in the diagnosis and management of occupational disease and hazardous exposures in the workplace.

Find more information on the Occupational Medicine Clinic and the Occupational Dermatology Clinic based at Groote Schuur Hospital.


** The Faculty of Health Sciences is proud to have at least three students and a staff member included in the Mail & Guardian’s list of 200 young South African achievers within the health category in 2019. Each month we will be profiling one of them. Congratulations to Dr Itumeleng Ntatamala, Warren Lucas, Vera-Genevey Hlayisi and Diantha Pillay.