In 1997, the Centre for Labour Studies (CLS) at the University of Malta introduced the Diploma in Social Studies (Occupational Health and Safety) to address the urgent need for investment in expertise and skills related to health and safety at work. In line with the CLS’ ethos of providing educational opportunities for working individuals, the course was offered as a two-year, part-time evening course. Consequently, most of those who read for the diploma were mature students, some of whom were already working in health and safety.
The course was delivered by selected academics and practitioners competent in these fields. The course curriculum, which was regularly revised, took a holistic approach to occupational health and safety and generally covered topics such as risk assessment, occupational safety, occupational health, law, industrial relations, ergonomics, business management, research methods, toxicology, occupational hygiene, health promotion and environmental health.
The impact of this course was manifold. The diploma was highly regarded internationally and accredited by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), UK, the largest global membership organisation for health and safety professionals. Graduates of this course were able to become IOSH members, which provided useful opportunities for students, including those related to continuous professional development (CPD). At the national level, the majority of Malta’s occupational health and safety practitioners are graduates of this diploma programme. Although health and safety is not a regulated profession in Malta, the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OHSA) maintains a voluntary list of practitioners who are competent in this field: as of March 2023, almost 80 per cent of these practitioners are CLS graduates.
Since the CLS aims to act as a gateway to education for working individuals, a tracer study was conducted to determine how the diploma had impacted its graduates. The study indicated that the programme offered graduates robust employment opportunities. Only one per cent of the sample was not in employment and looking for a job. Almost 70 per cent of the graduates categorised the grade of their job as that of a professional, senior official or manager. Nearly half of the graduates reported that their primary job title was related to occupational health and safety. Excluding those who were unemployed or inactive, less than 10 per cent of the sample were not involved in health and safety to some extent.
The tracer study investigated whether graduates had furthered their studies since graduation. Only 25 per cent of the sample had gained further qualifications since graduating, with most having gained a further diploma. However, 60 per cent of the sample were interested in continuing their education if a Bachelor in Occupational Health and Safety (Hons) was offered by the CLS.
The bachelor’s degree
The stand-alone diploma programme was offered until 2014, following which the CLS introduced the Bachelor’s degree in Occupational Health and Safety (Hons) in 2016. The transition to a degree was made for several reasons. Firstly, student interest in a diploma course was declining, while many of the diploma graduates (and thus practitioners) were eager to continue their studies. Secondly, the degree was needed nationally in light of the ever-evolving world of work, which is leading to new, complex and often poorly understood hazards. These include new technologies, new ways of working, new jobs, entirely new sectors and changing work profiles, amongst others.
The considerations are so extensive that they cannot be dealt with in satisfactory detail within the framework of a diploma course. This was also recognised by IOSH, which at the time informed the CLS that going forward, diploma graduates would only be eligible for technical membership, while those with a degree could obtain full graduate membership.
The new degree was developed in consultation with the CLS board, which includes representatives from employers’ organisations and trade unions, among others, together with various other stakeholders, including former graduates and lecturers of the course, who include academics and practitioners in the field. The latter work in a variety of settings, including private practice, for leading organisations and government entities, including the OHSA. While retaining the topics originally covered in the diploma, it also included new units that focused on practical, academic, legal and research skills, as well as new topics such as OHS management systems, auditing, psychosocial hazards, robotics and nanotechnology.
In keeping with the ethos of the CLS, the course remained a part-time, five-year evening course, and the option to exit the course earlier and graduate with a diploma was retained. The latter was also lengthened to include more of the new topics in order to ensure that students that chose this pathway would also have a higher level of competency. Furthermore, a clause was introduced to allow graduates of the old diploma to enter the course in the third year to upgrade their qualification. The new course has been accredited by IOSH and graduates are eligible for graduate membership.
Since 2016, the CLS has opened the course four times, with the first graduates of the programme occurring in 2021. Although it is too early to judge the impact of the course, initial signs are positive. From an academic perspective, the course has been well received. Regarding the transition from diploma to degree, none of the students eligible for the diploma-exit award have chosen to leave the programme early and instead continued their studies to obtain the degree.
In terms of employment, many of the students who were not already working in occupational health and safety found related jobs while they were still reading for the degree. Several of those who were already in occupational health and safety jobs were also able to advance their careers.
The profile of the occupational health and safety profession also seems to have benefitted from the introduction of the bachelor’s course, as some of the graduates were elected to the Malta Occupational Safety and Health Practitioners Association (MOSHPA) committee, giving new impetus to this important group.
Finally, the educational impact of the course is already evident: more students from the first group of bachelor graduates have continued their studies at postgraduate level than diploma students who had participated in the tracer study.
The way forward
Over a period of 25 years, the two programmes have produced 232 graduates, during which occupational accidents have decreased substantially. Despite this, it is evident more needs to be done to improve health and safety in Malta.
A sound education is the bedrock of any profession. To further improve standards in Malta, it is time to discuss regulating the health and safety profession. Currently, the OHSA’s voluntary competency list is the only guide as to who can be considered a professional in Malta. It also lists a diploma as the minimum requirement: a level that many professions have long since moved away from.
It is time to discuss regulating the health and safety profession
Now that the University of Malta offers a stream of graduates with degrees who are able to understand the complex multifactorial aspects that affect the health and safety of workers, it is proposed that the minimum level required to work in the country is raised: at least for those who graduate after a certain cut-off date.
In addition, the CLS can contribute to raising the level in the country by continuing to offer applicable diploma holders the opportunity to upgrade their qualifications.
Dr Luke Fiorini is director, Centre for Labour Studies, University of Malta. Dr Francis La Ferla is an international consultant in Occupational Medicine.
Individuals interested to learn more about the diploma and bachelor degree in occupational health and safety (Hons) may visit https://www.um.edu.mt/cls or e-mail the course coordinator on email@example.com.