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March 17, 2011

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Training – A world of their own

Following on from their article in SHP in 2009,1 in which they looked at meeting worldwide demand for practical occupational-hygiene training, Roger Alesbury and Steve Bailey describe the lessons learnt during the development of a global training and accreditation scheme via a large-scale collaborative effort.

With the migration of industrial activities from the developed world to other countries the global demand for expertise in occupational hygiene has grown. More and more manufacturing and mineral extraction activities are being carried out in parts of the world where safety and health practices are poorly developed, and where there is limited specialist expertise. Various analyses of needs indicated a potential global requirement that far exceeded current supply. For example, based on an analysis of trends in OECD countries, India and China could each need more than the total number of qualified occupational hygienists globally.

Occupational hygiene requires knowledge of the work environment plus the science and engineering skills necessary to evaluate and control those exposures. To meet the growing need for such skills an international initiative involving companies, universities, training providers and professional associations devised and have now developed a global training and qualifications scheme based on standardised, modular training and student assessment.

Why an international qualification?

One of the challenges facing occupational hygiene is a lack of both understanding of what it involves, and common terminology. In many countries, it is confused with the work of clinical services, and training is thus highly variable. The result is that there are very few people across the world with the necessary skills to assess and advise on control of hazards in, and posed by, the work environment. Consequently, the burden of occupational ill health is increasing globally, with lung disease due to dusts a classic example.

Having standards for training and qualifications at introductory, intermediate and advanced levels, and providing a career ladder to build capability across the world contributes significantly to raising awareness and improving practice in the prevention of disease from exposures in the work environment.

The International Occupational Hygiene Association (IOHA)2 does recognise national accreditation schemes at full professional level, i.e. equivalent to a postgraduate degree and five years’ practical experience, but, in most countries of the world, the challenge is how to deliver lower-level training to many more individuals to help them get on the lower rungs of the ladder and focus on the basic hands-on practice of workplace occupational hygiene.

So, what was needed was a common scheme to deliver training and competence for early-career occupational hygienists that could serve either as a standalone qualification for those in other areas of health and safety (e.g. safety professionals, occupational physicians) or as a starting point for eventual professional accreditation.

The courses and qualifications currently available are at three levels, providing stepping stones to the advanced level required for full professional accreditation but also serving as courses that can be taken in isolation. The awards are overseen by a qualifications group that includes representatives of all IOHA national accreditation recognition schemes’ occupational-hygiene examining bodies. (See the authors’ previous article1 for more information.)

The project was not without its challenges – the very idea of reaching international agreement on a scheme of transferable practical training and qualifications raised more than a few eyebrows – yet, five years later, that vision has now been realised.

The most important factor in the development of this scheme is that it was done through collaborative effort. It would simply not have been possible without the sustained effort of a group of like-minded professionals around the world – individuals who are passionate about improving knowledge in occupational hygiene and reducing the burden of occupational ill health.

Through a sustained process of networking and discussing ideas with stakeholders from the global occupational hygiene community, various workshops and meetings at conferences, presentations to the boards and councils of professional bodies, meetings with key stakeholders, listening to and acting on criticism and feedback, and regular bulletins and e-mail exchanges, the scheme was given life.

The key players were, fortunately, in positions of seniority in major multinational corporations, with global roles that required extensive travel. Thus, they were well connected to professional networks around the world and we were able to build their communication efforts into our work programmes. These personal and professional networks were to prove crucial to the eventual success and acceptance of the scheme.

How the scheme was developed

The original concept was to build on a tried-and-tested scheme used in the UK. This was based on one-week classroom courses, with an assessment at the end of each course. The courses could be taken in isolation, or as a programme to build up to intermediate and professional accreditation. To test whether this concept would work outside the UK, we identified a partner in Australia, the University of Wollongong, which ran one of the UK-type courses as provided, with just specific regulations omitted.

Often in life, the greatest lessons are learned from things that do not go according to plan. That was the case with this first course – but it proved to be a pivotal moment in the evolution of the scheme, because it forced us to shape a different style of training and qualification. The basic concept worked, but needed to evolve.

It also became apparent that a disconnect had arisen between syllabi, course content and student assessment, and that content had not necessarily kept pace with technological developments. The basic flaw was that these components had usually been developed in isolation and often without consulting the end users on what was required. Furthermore, the content of what was taught, and the teaching style, were left entirely to the course provider – with variable results.

The answer was to develop a completely new standard set of training manuals and materials, aligned with a syllabus that meets the needs of end users, and with a student assessment that would work in a multicultural environment. Focusing on the science and practice, avoiding national regulation (which can be added in later, locally) and developing standardised materials would facilitate translation (see below) and use across the world.

The collaborative nature of the project meant that while individual companies funded courses to meet their particular needs, each contributed to the overall review, testing and editing on the understanding that the resultant materials would be freely available for use by all.

Similarly, occupational hygiene societies and individuals around the world have freely provided their time and support. The benefit is that individual contributions are bolstered by the collective investment, and the end product benefits from the wider pool of expertise and its resultant wider uptake.

Major corporations provided the funding to develop and pilot a series of standardised training courses, complete with syllabi, model programme, student manuals, lessons plans, slide packs, practical sessions, case studies and student assessment. A team of authors was involved in writing the materials under the editorial control of Professor Brian Davies of the University of Wollongong. With standard materials and delivery by qualified occupational hygienists, there could now be confidence in what and how people were being taught.

Material world

In producing course materials care must be taken to ensure the right level and content to achieve the learning aims. The material has to be technically correct, the scope manageable in the time available, and it must be pitched at the right level for the audience. The process started with extensive discussions on the scope of the course and what should and should not be included for each specialist topic. To ensure complete alignment between course materials, syllabus, and student assessment, these were developed at the same time with the support and involvement of the BOHS Faculty of Occupational Hygiene.

With funding from major multinational corporations, courses were commissioned from specialists in universities, or other experienced training organisations. Following delivery of the first drafts, all materials were peer-reviewed by independent specialists and not accepted until agreement was reached. This, in itself, was an interesting process, occasionally highlighting differences of opinion between world experts in some of the underlying scientific concepts. For example, there were some interesting debates on the terminology used to describe the underlying physiology of heat stress!

Once course materials had been agreed, the courses were piloted – often more than once – in countries such as Azerbaijan, China and Indonesia, as well as the UK and USA. This invariably threw up other challenges that needed to be addressed – often, the balance and content of the course needed to be amended to reflect the practicalities of delivering the course to a multicultural audience. The courses were subsequently amended as necessary and trialled again, often several times, until the formula was found to work.

Obviously, this process of development, peer review and piloting takes considerable time, effort and money and may be beyond the scope of many organisations. The value of a collaborative approach is to share the workload and produce high-quality validated training that can be used freely by training providers, allowing them to concentrate on teaching. The benefit to students and users of the scheme is assurance that the materials are of high quality, technically correct, and reflect current thinking.

Copyright and translation

Before course materials can be published, full copyright approval has to be obtained. This proved a major effort, requiring documentary evidence of approval for each illustration, photograph, chart and suchlike. Courses were not signed off until this process was completed and all the documentation was on file. In the few cases where copyright approval could not be obtained, or where charges were involved, illustrations had to be excluded.

Although requiring additional work and creative thinking, this was not an insurmountable problem. In cases where charts or graphs could not be used, raw data was accessed from scientific papers and presented in a different form. The companies funding the development of the courses also assigned us copyright approval to enable publication.

The result is that all approved course materials are now available online3 and can be accessed free of charge under creative common licences, a widely used system for assigning copyright approvals on the Internet.

For the materials to be used across the world, they had to be ‘localised’, or translated. This can be a time-consuming and challenging task; seemingly simple or commonly-used terms, or technical jargon, may have no equivalent in some languages. For example, the word ‘cowl’, used to describe the shield on an asbestos sampling head, has no equivalent in Mandarin. The translation therefore has to incorporate a description of what the item is and how it is used.

Care must be taken when commissioning translation services, which can be expensive in some parts of the world. The key things to ensure are that the translator is a mother-tongue speaker of the target language, i.e. the language into which they are translating, and, equally important, that they are familiar with the subject and technical context. Words can be easily translated but meaning is a whole other challenge. For this reason, we engaged experienced occupational hygienists to help – either to translate the texts, or to sense-check them before release.

Again, the collaborative nature of the project helped enormously. In Chile, for example, a major mining company worked with a local university to translate the courses into Spanish, using commercial translators. These are now being reviewed and edited by two Spanish occupational hygienists. In Brazil, Norway and France the courses are being translated by occupational hygienists from industry and the national occupational hygiene associations.

Dissemination tactics

Having gone through the rigorous development, peer review, copyright and piloting phases, we now had to get the materials ‘out there’. While the IOHA and major professional societies across the world had signed a Memorandum of Understanding to support the scheme the next challenge was how to deliver training on a larger scale, where and when needed, and at an affordable price.

The answer was to develop OHLearning.com a website where information on occupational hygiene, the courses, and qualifications can be easily accessed. The site also includes a community section, where ideas, suggestions and new materials can be posted.

The model we chose is based on a few simple principles. The materials are free to access and use, although to be eligible for the qualifications, training has to be delivered by qualified occupational hygienists. The administration of the scheme, for now, is through voluntary effort and funding, which is currently provided via donations and sponsorship. (In other words OHLearning.com derives no income from the use of the training materials or qualifications.)

Corporate sponsorship is being secured from companies supplying equipment or services to the occupational hygiene community and, where possible, this is being linked to scholarships for students, as well as support for future support and maintenance of OHLearning.com

Funding for the development of the website was secured from the IOHA, BOHS, and the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, and the site was launched in May 2010.

Where we are now

The site has now been live for just under a year, and courses have been run, or are planned to be run, in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, Trinidad, UK, USA and Vietnam.

Further courses are already in development, including one on control banding, which is being led by the American Industrial Hygiene Association. NIOSH in the USA has also been in discussion about the possibility of developing training materials.

The scheme is now listed as a WHO project, supporting the 2009-2012 Global Network Workplan to increase technical knowledge and capacity in industrial hygiene, and we are in similar discussions with several other international organisations.

Providing training and assessment in languages other than English is critical, and a great deal of work is in progress on translations. Four courses have already been translated into Spanish, and one each into Norwegian and Russian, and work is in progress on French, Portuguese and Chinese versions. Examinations have been conducted in Chinese, Russian and Norwegian, as well as English.

Much more information on occupational hygiene qualifications and careers is available at www.OHLearning.com The website also includes a collaboration centre where visitors can upload projects, training materials, or offer comments on the scheme. We encourage all practitioners with an interest in training and occupational hygiene to visit and let us know what you think.

References
1 Alesbury, R and Bailey, S (2009): ‘You are not alone’, in SHP August 2009, Vol.27 No.8 – www.shponline.co.uk/features-content/full/you-are-not-alone
2 The IOHA is an organisation of national occupational hygiene societies and is accredited as a non-governmental organisation by the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation
3 Visit www.OHLearning.com

Roger Alesbury and Steve Bailey are both past-presidents of the BOHS and founding directors of the Occupational Hygiene Training.

Ensuring a safe return to face-to-face events

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we speak to an events venue, London’s ExCeL, and an events business, Informa Markets, to discover how they have worked alongside industry associations and government to secure a swift and safe return to face-to-face events, in a post-pandemic world.

Click here to listen to this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast.

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