KANBrief 3/16

The IPA: research in the interests of protecting health at the workplace

In recent decades, occupational medical research has contributed considerably to minimizing occupational accidents, occupational diseases and work-related health hazards. The aim of the Institute for Prevention and Occupational Medicine of the DGUV (IPA) is the sustainable implementation of practice-oriented research to promote workplace safety and health effectively and for the long term.

As an institute of the German Social Accident Insurance, the IPA is at the same time a research institute of the medical faculty of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. It has around 140 staff, who represent a wide range of disciplines: medicine, toxicology, statistics/epidemiology, chemistry, physics, engineering, psychology and biology.

A unique and comprehensive research concept

The aim of the IPA's work is to support the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases. For this purpose, the IPA is in continuous dialogue with the accident insurance institutions, in order to address issues arising in industrial practice and to generate research results that can be implemented in the field.

The IPA's research activity covers all human diseases that may occur at the workplace. The range of research topics is correspondingly broad, whilst at the same time satisfying high scientific quality standards. Research particularly focuses upon human studies into health effects of various hazardous substances and their combinations. The institute's research profile covers diseases caused by chemical, biological and physical exposure, forms of cancer and their early detection, allergies, respiratory, skin and neurodegenerative diseases. The impact of shift work upon health and mental impairments caused by hazardous substances with strong olfactory effects are also studied.

With the close intermeshing of its five centres of competence (medicine, toxicology, allergology/immunology, epidemiology and molecular medicine) the IPA is equipped to conduct quality-assured research into health effects directly at the workplace, in order to reveal complex causal relationships. Research is conducted in close cooperation with accident insurance institutions, companies and insured individuals. With its exposure laboratory, the IPA also has the means to simulate standardized workplace exposure scenarios. In this laboratory, the possible health effects of defined concentrations, permissible at workplaces, of gases, aerosols and dusts are studied under standardized conditions.

In addition, "in-vitro" studies on cell cultures can be performed for more differentiated examination of the findings obtained in human-based studies and for clarification of causal relationships. "In-vitro" studies may also point towards possible risks to humans that can then be investigated in subsequent epidemiological studies.

Examples of current projects

  • Robust human data are not yet available for the setting of occupational exposure limits for dusts and nanoparticles. The IPA conducts inhalation experiments of short du­ration in order to establish dose-effect rela­tionships that can serve as a basis for reliable MAK limits (German occupational exposure limit).
  • The relevance of night-shift work for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mental disorders and cancer has been the subject of an ongoing study since 2010. Among the factors studied are sleep quality, the influence of light, the ability to concentrate, metabolic products and hormones.
  • Creation of a biosamples bank in which samples such as blood, tissue, urine, DNA, etc. are stored prospectively and systematically together with data on the study subjects, the samples and personal exposure levels. The data are available to institutes in Germany and abroad for the purposes of further research.
  • Establishment of analytic methods for the bio-monitoring of exposure

Transfer of research results to the field

A crucial starting-point for the work of the IPA is the scope for transfer of research results to occupational practice. The broad representation of the IPA's researchers on various committees ensures that the research results and expertise find their way into numerous OSH regulations and standards.

Professor Dr Thomas Brüning