HomeNews EventsNewsLet's Talk Public Health with A/Prof Norbert Wagner

Let's Talk Public Health with A/Prof Norbert Wagner

29 Apr 2019

Associate Professor Norbert Wagner is an occupational health physician who has spent most of the last twenty years setting up training programmes in different countries to build capacity in prevention at the workplace. Norbert also works as a specialist and consultant in occupational health for governments and companies.

Yesterday was World Day for Safety and Health at Work, and the International Labour Organization's 100th anniversary. To commemorate this day, we are shining a light on an often overlooked area: the impact of work on health and well-being.

Workers in the formal economy, and more often in the informal economy (such as farmers, hawkers, home workers and craftsmen), represent roughly half the world's population. Most of them don't have social protection but are major contributors to economic and social development. With life expectancy increasing in many countries, including Singapore, most people will be working well into their sixties and seventies. The work environment then plays an increasingly important role in supporting health, promoting healthy ageing and preventing chronic conditions.

Looking back on the work you've undertaken, which project stands out as memorable?

One memorable time was certainly the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. From 2014 to 2015, I was working at a global manufacturing company and we had a couple of projects in Nigeria. During this time, the Ebola virus emerged as a significant health threat. We set up a task force within the company to closely monitor and manage the situation; I gave the medical input and chaired the task force with professionals from security, human resource, communications and travel management.

We watched the situation closely, and provided health advice to our employees and project managers. Fortunately, we didn't need to shut down our projects, but everyone was on edge during that period.

What are you currently working on?

My work in the School focuses on prevention at the workplace and occupational health. I currently teach students in the Preventive Medicine Residency and Master of Public Health programmes.

Teaching of occupational health has changed a lot in recent decades. 20 years ago, Singapore was a main hub for occupational medicine in Southeast Asia. Now, there are several centres across Asia that teach occupational medicine. Here at the School, we are in the process of broadening our scope instead of focusing solely on the medical aspects. We want to modernise how we teach occupational health to make it more relevant for today's workplaces.

In terms of international work, the School has been a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Occupational Health since 1992. We have programmes for capacity building in the ASEAN region to provide technical and leadership skills, confidence, and motivation to take forward improvements in occupational health.

In Vietnam, our current work is on building capacity of the occupational health workforce at the district-, provincial and national level, and in health programmes for healthcare workers. We also give classes on programme design and management, supporting local leaders to develop and roll out their own priority programmes on occupational health.

In Cambodia, we are in the process of starting a national project for the training and certification for labour inspectors. The goal is to have a sustained approach to training labour inspectors in occupational health. We hope we can work with experts in the country to set up a sustainable system for teaching the next generation. I also hope that some of the cohort would go on to further their studies and become specialists in occupational safety and health.

Norbert with A/Prof Nguyen Duc Chinh, Chief of Department of Septic Sugery and Deputy Chief of General Planning Department, Viet Duc Hospital, Hanoi. A/Prof Nguyen was a participant in the Leadership Training Course in Occupational Health in Nha Trang, Vietnam, led by Norbert.
Norbert with A/Prof Nguyen Duc Chinh, Chief of Department of Septic Sugery and Deputy Chief of General Planning Department, Viet Duc Hospital, Hanoi. A/Prof Nguyen was a participant in the Leadership Training Course in Occupational Health in Nha Trang, Vietnam, led by Norbert.

What's been the biggest change you've seen in your research area?

With more workers in sedentary jobs and an ageing workforce, occupational health plays an even more important role in preserving health and promoting healthy ageing. There has been a shift to integrate healthy living into daily work life and to actively promote health using the workspace as an area for intervention. The School is working with the National University Health System (NUHS) on health promotion programmes in the NUHS workplaces. This is also part of our work as a WHO Collaborating Centre for Occupational Health to pilot tools on health promotion in the workplace.

If you could make one change to positively impact public health what would it be?

According to the Global Burden of Disease studies, occupational risks are the leading factor for adults with disability globally. This fact is not well recognised. Effects of exposures at work are often under-reported and under-researched. Developing a more detailed understanding of long-term occupational health impacts would provide a strong argument for more focused and sustained efforts.

The impact of work exposures on the health and well-being of low-skilled migrant workers in Singapore is also an area that is under-researched. They make up almost 10 per cent of the entire population and around one-quarter of the entire Singaporean workforce. But because they leave after an average of four years, oftentimes ill health effects are not detected. While Singapore has achieved a lot in terms of health and safety regulations, robust and independent research in this area would be valuable in identifying the key issues to improve migrant workers' health and well-being. Any potential changes could be rolled out gradually, giving employers time to adjust processes and systems.

Tell us something surprising about you that people may not know.

I have a love of languages. German is my first language. I spent nine years learning Latin, then five years learning ancient Greek in school, with English as my second foreign language. I then taught myself French and Spanish, as well as conversational Italian. When I travel, I learn 100 words and key sentences to get by and survive. Usually, all my mistakes make people laugh and smile. I don't mind. Currently, I am trying to learn Arabic but that is proving to be quite difficult.


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