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OHS degree programs should teach interpersonal skills: study

By Mari-Len De Guzman
| www.cos-mag.com

LAS VEGAS — Most health and safety professionals feel interpersonal communication (IPC) is a critical competency, but many occupational health and safety related degree programs do not require IPC-related courses as part of the curriculum. 

These were the findings of a study conducted by Jonathan Klane, assistant director of safety programs, and Friederike Doerstling, chemical safety specialist, both from the Arizona State University’s Ira A. Schools of Engineering.

The two surveyed 151 safety professionals and evaluated 181 degree programs. More than 60 per cent of those surveyed said their OHS degree program did not require IPC-related courses. Only nine per cent said it required at least one IPC-related course.

“We didn’t think (the findings were) a big ‘a-ha!’ but it definitely needs more in-depth study,” said Klane, who was speaking at the Academic Forum at this week’s Safety 2013 conference hosted by the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Majority of the respondents feel their interpersonal skills evolved as they increase their experience. When asked whether they feel or felt well-prepared to use their interpersonal skills, 57 per cent said they did not feel well-prepared upon graduation but they do now, 34 per cent said they were well-prepared upon graduation, and nine per cent feel they still do not feel well-prepared in IPC skills.

Majority of survey respondents were older and more experienced health and safety professionals, with 65 per cent aged between 45 and 65 years old, said Doerstling.

She suggested safety, health and environmental degree programs should evaluate the need and feasibility of requiring a formal IPC course or at least encouraging one as an elective.

Klane also suggested that faculties consider the feasibility of offering professional development training on IPC for students as extra-curricular.

“Maybe build in more activity-based and role playing and integrate them into course work,” added Klane.

The importance of studying international safety and health as a program was also discussed at the Academic Forum.

In his presentation, Mark Friend, professor of doctoral studies at Embry-Riddle Auronautical University, said graduate school applications from students who come from other countries increase by five per cent every year.

These students, he said, will likely go back to their home countries upon graduation, highlighting the need for a more effective graduate program on international safety and health.

“We’re going to see more and more students that didn’t grow up in the U.S. coming into our classrooms,” Friend said. “How relevant are current graduate occupational safety and health programs when students go back to their own countries?”

Friend recently consulted with several occupational health and safety experts from other countries and conducted a study on creating an International Safety and Health Master of Science Curriculum.

He came up with a list of courses that he and the other professionals he consulted with feel should be present in an International Safety and Health Master of Science Curriculum, including: accident investigation and analysis; hazard control methods in occupational safety and health; system approach to hazard control; fundamentals of risk management; industrial hygiene; hazardous materials and emergency planning; environmental and occupational health management; workplace ergonomics and human factors; managing health and safety programs; and international safety standards and law.

“It’s critical that students have an understanding of what they need to know regardless of where they find themselves,” Friend explained. He added educators of health and safety programs need to be familiar with health and safety laws and standards in other countries, as well as all the different cultures that exist within their classrooms.

The ASSE Safety 2013 conference is being held at the Las Vegas Convention Centre from June 24 to 27.

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