Factors that Influence the Occupational Health and Safety Curricula. Jeffery Spickett. Division of Health Sciences Curtin University Australia

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1 Factors that Influence the Occupational Health and Safety Curricula Jeffery Spickett Division of Health Sciences Curtin University Australia 1.0 INTRODUCTION Occupational health and safety has undergone a period of rapid development in many countries. In particular, in Australia there have been significant changes in the legislative approach to occupational health and safety, from a prescriptive style of legislation to legislation based on the general duty of care. These changes occurred in the mid 1980 s and have been implemented in the 1990's. Concurrent with this there has been a steady growth in the number of tertiary institutions offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses in occupational health and safety. This has been in response to an increased need for people with formal qualifications in this area. Industry is increasingly aware of the moral, legal and economic reasons for implementing good occupational health and safety practice. One benefit to industry is the reduction in injury and diseases resulting from the work environment which have resulted in a reduction in the insurance premiums to cover worker's compensation and other associated costs. There is also a greater appreciation of the hitherto unrecognised social and other indirect costs flowing on from work-related injury and disease. The legislative and other changes to occupational health and safety practice in Australia have mediated an increased need for education and training at all levels. The terms education and training are often used together. However, education is usually considered to be a process of formal and informal programs which produce graduates with a high degree of professional competence. It is expected that after an education the professional person is equipped for life long learning, as skills in the development of the learning process will have been acquired during the education and that this process will support the effective implementation of legislation. Sherwood (1992) has suggested that it is better to distinguish education and training not by level but by purpose. Hence the principle objective of training is to meet the needs of the market place, that of education is to shape the market place. 75

2 2.0 OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY PROFESSIONALS Within the occupational health and safety workforce, there are groups into which practitioners may be classified. One group is classified as the professional group and the other as the non professional group, where grouping is based upon relevant vocational experience and formal tertiary education and training. The term nonprofessional in this context means that the person has no formal education in occupational health and safety but may well have professional qualifications in other areas. It does not imply an inferior grade of person but a person without professional qualifications or extensive experience related to occupational health and safety and where occupational health and safety is not be a major part of their job description. 2.1 Occupational Health and Safety Professional Groups The professional group includes specialists such as occupational physicians, hygienists, and ergonomists as well as generalists involved in occupational health and safety. While generalists would not necessarily have detailed expertise in a specialist professional area, they would often be regarded as specialists in the broader domain of occupational health and safety. They may have full time positions in their organisations and have a title such as safety adviser, occupational health and safety manager, or risk manager. They would probably have formal qualifications in occupational health and safety and/or extensive experience in the area. It is this group that is important in the implementation of legislation. 2.2 Non-Professional Groups in Occupational Health and Safety Alternatively, those identified within the second group have no formal tertiary level qualifications in occupational health and safety. This group is composed of those with expert technical knowledge of the process and/or products in a specific work environment and who generally, have line management responsibilities. The second subgroup identifies individuals that have occupational health and safety responsibilities in addition to their primary role within the organisation. A third subgroup includes those who provide technical support to those in the professional category. Any of these groups could be well qualified and respected professionals in another discipline. 3.0 GRADUATE CHARACTERISTICS The focus of the discussion here will be directed towards the tertiary education and training of occupational safety and health professionals, that is those practicing as specialists or generalists within the field of occupational safety and health. Having completed a tertiary level education (usually at the level of diploma, degree or postgraduate studies) the specialist qualifications may not be recognised by their peers and organisations unless they are affiliated with regulatory bodies and associations. Through such membership specialists operate under strong ethical and professional guidance. 76

3 National and international organisations have input into shaping and defining the roles of occupational safety and health professionals. For example in response to need the World Health Organisation organised a meeting and published a document in 1992 for the ongoing development of occupational hygiene professionals (WHO 1992). Some professional groups have statutory controlling bodies with which professionals must be affiliated to practice in their chosen fields. In this way professional guidelines, codes of conduct and ethics are identified for all members to practice and observe. In addition, these regulatory bodies have a strong commitment toward research and development in their relevant field, ensuring the maintenance of the highest quality professional ideals. For example medical practitioners must be registered with the Australian Medical Board in order to practice medicine and nurses must be registered with the Australian Nurses Board to practice nursing. For some of the specialist groups in occupational health and safety e.g. occupational hygienists and ergonomists there are no registration requirements but it is desirable for those who practice in these areas to be members of the relevant professional association. Although this is not essential it does provide some protection to the clients who seek to use their services and would, certainly, enhance their standing in any legal action. Within the generalist role, occupational health and safety organisations may have a broad cross section of professional membership and consequently are unable to be specific in the prescription of professional ethics, conduct and practice. This cross section of professional memberships yields a broad knowledge base. Similarly, core tertiary education modules for students of occupational safety and health are broad based and responsive to change as initiated by the influence of organisations and industry demands. However, there is no single, clearly recognisable body which can exercise professional control over this group and hence there is a need to at least establish some guidelines for this group. In 1992 Marshall and Mackey identified the need for government agencies to: 1. Prescribe competency standards for core curricula for all occupational safety and health courses, and 2. Ensure that all courses reflect the needs of industry and those identified by external advisory committees. They compared the courses offered by 26 educational institutions in Australia to identify commonalities between course materials and structure. The study revealed that discrepancies that existed in core material at different institutions may have been due to lack of consideration of outcome competencies. However, in general the courses addressed core competency standards identified by the WHO in conjunction with the International Labour Organisation up to and including 1989 (Marshall and Mackey 1995). 77

4 In Australia there are a number of recognised tertiary courses, which allow individuals practicing as a non-professionals or as generalists to upgrade and formalise their knowledge and skills in occupational health and safety. From an educational viewpoint, the input from occupational safety and health organisations and industry has been essential in formulating the structure of tertiary occupational health and safety courses. In response to demands from industry and the corporate sector, the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety developed a guidance note for tertiary institutions delivering occupational safety and health courses. This nationally recognised document identifies seven core learning objectives for occupational safety and health educational programs that represent a minimum coverage of skills and knowledge required by the occupational health and safety professional (NOSHC 1994). The learning objectives are as follows: At the completion of the course the graduate should be able to: ensure the development, implementation and monitoring of effective prevention programs for the workplace; identify potential and current health and safety hazards within the workplace and recommend a systematic approach to their assessment and control; locate, evaluate, interpret and provide occupational safety and health information appropriate to the workplace; collect, analyse, interpret and use workplace data in a systematic way with appropriate attention to ethical, legal and confidentiality requirements; consult and communicate in a matter which recognises and makes appropriate use of the industrial framework of the workplace; apply knowledge of relevant legislation, standards and codes of practice in day to day activities; assess the workplace management systems and apply sound management practices to all aspects of the occupational health and safety function. These guidelines have no legal standing but universities generally take these objectives into consideration in curriculum design. 78

5 In general terms the key skills to practice successfully, as an occupational health and safety professional are the ability to: Access, select and critically analyse information Work collaboratively as part of a team Adopt a critical approach to anticipating and solving problems. Communicate arguments and other information concisely, in both oral and written forms. Use numerical and basic statistical methods. Apply a high level of professional and ethical standards to practice. Work to time constraints Appreciate cultural diversity. Each of these key skills will have a role in the design, development and implementation of legislation and supporting codes of practice, standards etc. 4.0 EMPLOYERS' NEEDS In view of these key skills universities need to consider the needs of employers in the preparation of graduates. The education of professionals in a tertiary setting must also maintain a degree of flexibility, which allows adaptation to the changing legislative situation and the consequential alteration of industry requirements. In addition to having a high level of knowledge and skill in health and safety as fundamental skills, employers require people who can work effectively as part of a team, who can communicate clearly with a range of people from workers to specialists and who can demonstrate some management capability. In the future it is unlikely that people will be employed for long periods of time with one employer and long term continuous employment may not be a realistic expectation. The challenge for universities in the future is to educate students to have confidence in their own ability to adapt to changes in the employment market. It is apparent that people who continue to resist change and see it as a threat will not be sought after by employers. Thus, tertiary programs that equip students with fundamental as well as specialist skills will promote a more ready adaptation to a changing industry or corporate environment, and graduates should be able to facilitate,if not lead, the transformation process. Innovation generally means change, which can challenge industry s traditional process of producing outputs for the market place. This simple notion is now becoming increasingly complex as issues associated with regulatory compliance and efficiency of production become intertwined with issues about future directions including issues such as ecologically sustainable development. 79

6 5.0 GENERAL FACTORS AFFECTING CURRICULA DEVELOPMENT Technology, particularly information technology, is often a factor which determines the competitive edge that an organisation may have. Communication skills are not only becoming much more important but they are also undergoing change. With increased use of electronic communication our relationships with colleagues are influenced by the medium used for the communication. In the educational process we need to ensure that the students are able to communicate using modern technology and are also able to follow arguments within a discipline and be able to communicate these clearly to people from a range of backgrounds. Clearly the ability to correctly interpret legislation, codes of practice and standards is crucial. In health and safety it is necessary to measure or be able to quantify a range of factors, from biological monitoring to measures of the economic benefit of a control strategy. Quantification is necessary for comparison with standards, targets or other criteria. It is clear that the workplace of the future will become increasingly complex and individuals will not have the skills necessary to complete many tasks. To deal with these complex problems individuals with different skills will be brought together to work as teams. As has been mentioned the information available is expanding rapidly and our knowledge becomes outdated rapidly. Many people, on the completion of university courses, are more aware of the enormous amount that is still to be learnt and hence the need for skills to continue learning through their careers. This need to ensure that people have the ability to learn outside the formal classroom has implications for health and safety curricula. 6.0 FACTORS MORE SPECIFIC TO THE OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY WORKFORCE Assuming that the world economy will continue to grow, with varying rates from country to country, then we could expect that the service industry sector will expand and create most of the new jobs. In addition, these jobs may need a higher level of skill as a result of the increased complexity of the work environment. We are currently seeing some cutbacks in employees and some occupational health and safety units in large organisations have been disbanded with the services being provided by consultants. Often the previous employees provide the consultancy services. As the numbers of professional health and safety staff decline companies will need to develop a more refined hazard identification and evaluation system to ensure that they are complying with current legislation as a minimum base. 80

7 There is an increasing number of positions in industry, which bring together health and safety and responsibilities for environmental aspects of a company s operation. Health and safety professionals will need to equip themselves with the knowledge and skills required to be able to effectively exercise their legislative and other responsibilities for these new areas. There is likely to be increasing recognition and awareness of the role of management in health and safety, particularly where legislation allows for managers to be prosecuted, on a personal basis, for negligence in the management of health and safety. Evidence suggests that management failure in accidents tends to be underestimated (Kletz 1991). The role of ergonomics in accident prevention is also receiving increased attention particularly in the design of equipment. Within the expansion of international business we are already seeing multinational companies, with factories in developing countries, providing significantly higher health and safety standards than apply in the local industry. This could mean that some companies are operating at a standard of occupational health and safety above that of legislative requirements in some countries. For an occupational health and safety professional Dawson et al (1984) has identified the following roles: Managerial dependence on specialist expertise Patronage of a senior managerial person/group Direct role in the control process Coalition formed with safety representatives and/or safety committees Maintaining strong cooperative relationships with enforcement agencies Formal position in the organisation Personal qualities of charm friendliness, leadership, etc. The third relates to the role as watchdog in the control process which would include the implementation of legislation. 7.0 DISTANCE EDUCATION OR OPEN LEARNING In recent years there have been major changes in the higher education sector. Universities are operating at a time of rapid social, economic, political and technological change. One major change has been from small elite system to mass higher education where the percentage of the population with a university education has increased dramatically over the last two or three decades. Demands for access and equity has increased expectations of universities so they now have to be more responsive to larger number of students. One strategy, which we have pursued to meet the new challenges, is to develop and increase the proportion of distance education in the delivery of the courses. 81

8 7.1 Advantages of Distance Learning The availability of distance learning enables people, who are unable for reasons of distance, work or domestic commitments to attend academic institutions on a regular basis to study for a formal award qualification. There are cost and time savings as there is less travel and loss of time, especially work time. One of the main advantages is the increased flexibility as students can pace their work, study at their own pace and convenience. This results in a much more efficient use of time. Students are able to be more selective in the material that they choose to study. There is no need to spend valuable time on material that they already understand. Assuming that the study material has been well designed and prepared and reviewed on a regular basis by well qualified people then students should be able to progress through the material in a logical way. From the student's perspective the educational format requires active participation by the student for learning to occur. Self-assessment exercises provide rapid feedback. The focus is on student centered learning as opposed to the more traditional teacher centered approach. The main disadvantage is the lack of face to face contact and the benefits of meeting with fellow students to discuss issues. This problem can be reduced if some face to face seminar type work is included and also the growing use of and other forms of electronic communication is making regular contact between academic staff and student as well as student to student contact more readily available. Students are encouraged to form study groups and work in teams, as long as the work that is to be assessed on an individual basis is individually prepared. As printed material can become outdated it has to be reviewed regularly. Also as the Internet becomes more widely available it will develop into a major source of distance learning material. 8.0 THE CURTIN EXPERIENCE In response to the need for education and training in occupational health and safety at the tertiary level, Curtin University has developed and implemented courses in distance learning and mixed modes, which result in formal tertiary level qualifications. At the present time courses in occupational health and safety are being offered at the level of associate diploma, degree, graduate diploma, master s degree and graduate certificate. Some background to these courses are provided in publications from Curtin University staff (Spickett 1985 and Murray 1990). 82

9 9.0 CONCLUSION Occupational health and safety, like most other disciplines, is being required to adapt to a changing work environment and to the social and economic factors which affect the way we live and work. Courses in this area will need to recognise the changing situation and adapt to meet the new demands of students, employers and the legislative requirements. The more traditional concepts of teaching need to be reconsidered in terms of flexible delivery. Course material is made available in printed or electronic format and the main focus is to ensure that the students learning experience is of a high quality. The concept of flexible delivery is being increasingly recognised as a challenge for educators with the advent of major changes in information technology, course delivery techniques, student and employer expectations. The bounds of the occupational health and safety discipline are being challenged, and more recognition needs to be given to issues such as management of health and safety and the effective implementation of legislation, communication, teamwork and education for life-long learning REFERENCES Dawson, S., Poynton, P. & Stevens, D 'Safety specialists in industry: roles, constraints and opportunities', Journal of Occupational Behaviour, vol.5, pp Kletz, T An Engineer's View of Human Error, Institute of Chemical Engineering, Rugby. Marshall, E. & Mackey, M 'Professional Education in Occupational Health and Safety in Australia', Safety Science, vol.20, no.2, pp Murray, C., Spickett, J.T. & Else, D 'A Tertiary Level Distance Learning Course in Occupational Health and Safety', Journal of Occupational Health and Safety- Australia and New Zealand, vol.6, no.1, pp National Occupational Health and Safety Commission 1994 Guidance Note for the Development of Tertiary Level Courses for Professional Education in Occupational Health and Safety [NOHSC:3020(1994)], Australian Publishing Services, Canberra. Sherwood, R.J 'Cause and Control: Education and Training of Professional Industrial Hygienists for 2020', American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal, vol.53, no.6, pp Spickett, J.T 'A Postgraduate Course in Occupational Health and Safety at WAIT', Journal of Occupational Accidents, vol.7, pp World Health Organisation 1992, Occupational Hygiene in Europe, World Health Organisation, Geneva. 83

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