Growing Occupational Hygiene Expertise in the Middle East

The Middle East is well known for widespread oil and gas production and a thriving petrochemical industry. This has resulted in a high demand for occupational hygiene (OH) professionals in the region. For many years, it was common for much of the occupational hygiene expertise to be provided by personnel from outside the region working for global companies. However, most countries and global companies now recognise that expertise in all fields including occupational hygiene needs to be developed at a local level to be truly effective.

For the last 20 years, small numbers of trainees from the region have travelled to countries such as the UK and USA where open training courses were readily available. In some cases, trainers have travelled to the region to deliver OHTA training to larger groups of local personnel and this can have a greater impact in building the numbers of OH professionals quickly and cost effectively.

COVID-19 catalysed a move to allow OHTA courses to be delivered live and online, using the popular video conferencing platforms. Although there are clearly some limitations with delivery of practical aspects of occupational hygiene, this opened the possibility of training larger numbers of personnel at a significantly lower cost. On one course alone, 20 delegates from 15 locations throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia attended and passed the W201 Basic Principles course. This would have been more difficult and costly to arrange even if it had been delivered at a central location in KSA. The author is aware of training programmes being delivered in this way to groups of OH trainees in companies in Iraq, the UAE and KSA.

For some trainees in the Middle East the preferred method of study may be to join open online courses with a mixture of delegates from other countries. In other cases, there are advantages to tailored in-company courses, particularly given that the OHTA courses are generally delivered in English, so most trainees are studying in a second language. In addition to training being at a time to suit the company, the teaching can be made more relevant to the company’s activities.

Hygienics Training have found that spreading the live online teaching over a greater number of shorter days, with free days in between, allows time for the trainees to absorb the knowledge and use the OHTA student manuals to full effect for self study. Guided, interactive E-Learning completed between live sessions also helps. Another advantage for some is that they have time to stay connected with their day job and answer urgent requests, which is often not possible if travelling overseas for training.

For all trainees progressing to the ICertOH qualification and professional practice, practical experience is very important. Putting the OHTA courses into practice and developing practical skills is an area that needs continued support after completing the OHTA modules. Mentoring can help and, wherever possible, focused, face to face practical training sessions with experienced OH professionals is invaluable.

Case study – Iraq

I have been very fortunate to have been involved in the training and development of a small group of occupational hygienists in southern Iraq, since 2011. Following several decades of wars, sanctions and unrest, Iraq’s oil and gas industry needed a major overhaul, to restore it to its former glory as a highly productive, efficient deliverer of wealth to the Iraqi people. Technical Services Contracts with several international oil companies were established to help achieve this aim.

Training in a wide range of areas including OH was a high priority. In the Rumaila oilfield, the W201 course was used as a starting point and was useful in identifying individuals that were interested and motivated to take their OH training further. This led to the formation of an OH Team of four within the Health Team. Initially, two of the team attended a couple of open W500 series courses in the UK. However, the cost and the difficulty of arranging travel triggered an alternative approach and I delivered the courses in house, during visits to deliver broader OH support.

Outside the courses, through working with the trainees on site and providing continued support remotely, three of the trainees, Husam Atiyah, Ihsan Failh and Ali Yayha, were able to successfully complete their training and become the first three Iraqis to achieve ICertOH qualification.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the work was when I learnt that these three recently qualified OHs were then supporting their colleague Yousif Essa at the neighbouring Basra Gas Company as he prepared for his ICertOH oral exam, which he passed to become the fourth Iraqi with ICertOH status. All four continue to provide OH expertise to their companies, helping to reduce the risk of ill health caused by work.