BOHS Examination timings

Last November BOHS introduced some major changes to the Occupational hygiene Module examinations. The multiple choice questions in part A were replaced by 40 short answer questions (SAQs) and the longer question in Part B was replaced by “micro essays” (5 from a choice of 8). The exam timings were not changed – 90 minutes for Part A and 45 minutes for Part B – i.e. a total of 2 1/4 hours. I do not think any consideration had been given to whether it was practicable to complete the new style exam during the time available.  Our experience was that most candidates found it hard work; the “micro-essays” in particular.

We advised candidates to spend no more than 2 minutes for the SAQs leaving about 10 minutes per “micro essay” but this did not seem enough time to allow candidates to think before putting pen to paper and then produce a well written, structured answer, particularly for Part B.

Course providers have given some feedback to BOHS on this and they’ve had a rethink. There were two main options – reduce the number of questions or increase the length of the exam. As might have been expected, they have chosen the latter approach.

From January 2011, for the SAQ section of the papers, candidates will be allowed an average of three minutes per question, i.e. 120 minutes for Part A. For Part B, the time allowed will be extended to 60 minutes. This means that the exam duration will be increased to 3 hours.

We are considering the implications of this for course timings and will be consulting candidates attending our next few courses on the options. If you have a view, get in touch.


BOHS Diploma Workshop

I spent today with a colleague leading a workshop to prepare potential candidates for the BOHS Diploma examination. We’d been asked to run this by the Faculty of Occupational Hygiene as one of three professional development semiars being run on the day before BOHS conference here in Harrogate. At one time a whole series of seminars were held before conference, but the practice was stopped a number of years ago. Dependimg on feedback from the participants in the 3 workshops held today, they may become a permanent fixture again.

We had 8 participants today. We made it highly participative, splitting them into groups and getting each group to work out an answer to a typical question and then take it in turns to present it to the other participants. Everyone joined in and pulled together some good solutions. This approach also allowed the participants to identify topics where additional work is needed before they sit the exam.

All in all it was a good day and everyone seemed to enjoy the experience.

Sent from my Nokia phone

Off to Harrogate

I’ll be setting off to Harrogate later this afternoon. BOHS Conference takes place there this week, starting on Tuesday. However, I’m up there a day early as we’re running a one day Diploma Exam preparation workshop or “taster day”.

There are very few people who hold the Diploma and not many candidates sit the exam – usually only one or two a year. The Faculty wants to try and encourage Licentiates to take the Diploma and upgrade their membership and have asked us to run this workshop as part of that effort.

The problem with the Diploma is that there isn’t a proper syllabus and potential candidates don’t know what to expect. This is a major issue that needs to be addressed, but it would take a lot of effort to pull one together.  The workshop will, hopefully, help candidates understand what is required and by working through some past questions they can practice their exam technique and identify areas where further study is required as part of their exam preparation.

Is it covered by the syllabus?

The syllabus for a BOHS module is an important document. For course providers, it’s the only thing that tells us what we need to cover during the course. So in order to be credible it needs to be clear and unambiguous and nothing should appear on the exam which isn’t mentioned  in the syllabus.

Unfortunately the Faculty exam committee are not very good at setting syllabi.  That for M103 is a particularly poor example. It’s not realistic to cover everything  on the syllabus in the time available – at least not properly, and certainly not to the depth that some questions that can appear on the exam require.

We also get some problems with M103 where the syllabus makes a brief mention of a particular topic, but the exam goes on to ask detailed questions beyond the scope set out.  For example, with respect to fans, the wording of the syllabus is as follows:

“Fan types and their applications”

My interpretation of this is that we should provide a brief overview of the different types of fans and the situations where they may be used, possibly discussing their relative advantages and disadvantages. And I also think that this is probably all a Certificate level occupational hygienist needs to know about them.  However, we have had questions on the exam that require knowledge of

  • how noise is created by fans
  • fan and system curves – including the shape of the fan curve for different types of fans
  • how to use fan curves to select a fan
  • the fan laws, including calculations
  • the effect of installing fans in series and in parallel

None of these topics are mentioned in the syllabus and, to me, are not implied by the statement “Fan types and their applications”. The exam requires knowledge not required by the syllabus.

Not only that, I’d contend that a Certificate level hygienist does not need this knowledge – and if they did, well we’d need more than a day and a half to get someone starting with no knowledge of ventilation principles to the point where they can answer questions on such advanced topics.

Knowing that this type of question can appear on the exam, we do our best (that includes us, as the course provider, and the candidates).  Fortunately only a few questions on fans should be included on the exam and it is possible to pass even where the candidates only know what the syllabus requires – providing they have understood enough of the other topics covered by the course.

I hope that when the Faculty get round to reviewing this syllabus they’ll think about making sure the syllabus is credible and reasonable in what it requires. They need to ensure that it is possible for someone new to the topic to learn what the syllabus requires from scratch in one week. And, hopefully, they’ll make sure that the bank of exam questions properly reflects the content of the syllabus.

Oral Examinations


Last week we ran a revision course for candidates intending to sit the oral examination for the BOHS Certificate. These take place every 3 months in March, June, September and December. The examination lasts for an hour (although it’s surprising how quickly thie time passes) and there will usually be a panel of three examiners who will ask a series of questions.

The exam can be an intimidating experience and its important to prepare properly. But many candidates are not sure what to expect.

I guess the first point to make is that the examiners are not out to fail you – they would like you to pass but they can only do that if you demonstrate your competence. They’re not out to trip you up or trick you. They will try to ask straightforward questions, and if there is an obvious answer that’s the one they are probably after. However, although they will try to frame the questions in a way you can understand, if you’re not sure what they are asking you, you can, and should, ask for clarification. They won’t bite your head off but will probably rephrase the question for you or provide some supplementary information to make it clearer. So don’t be afraid to ask.

The principle aims of the oral examination are to test  your ability to

  • recognise common health hazards and risks
  • describe, in a simple way, the toxic effects of hazardous substances and explain related terminology as you would to a worker or manager
  • decide on what sampling methods are appropriate to assess common chemical hazards and describe the key features of the equipment and sampling procedure
  • carry out sampling for common contaminants
  • carry out noise and vibration assessments
  • apply the hierarchy of control to typical industrial processes, describing appropriate controls
  • describe and apply the key principles of ventilation system design
  • assess the effectiveness of LEV systems
  • select personal protective equipment (RPE, gloves, ear defenders)

The examiners should not expect you to give detailed explanations of the “heavier” theory covered in the module exams. You may be asked about some basic principles and underpinning knowledge (such as legislation) but time is limited and the examiners will usually mainly concentrate on the more practical aspects of  occupational hygiene practice.

Questions will often be based on workplace scenarios. These shouldn’t be too complicated but will not always be familiar to you. If you have never come across the situation before don’t panic. Think it through. If you work out what the hazards and risks are you should be able to decide on what assessment methods and control methods will be appropriate.  If you aren’t sure about something ask for clarification.



Simply being able to reel off facts isn’t proof of ability to perform a task. Yet the primary emphasis of BOHS modules is on rote learning  where trainees are required to learn masses of facts in order to pass their exams. In practice there is very little testing of the ability to apply the knowledge to solving problems. To me, this approach is rather old fashioned and doesn’t really reflect the needs of modern occupational hygiene practice.

An enormous amount of information available to us in the modern world – and it continues to expand exponentially. In our profession new substances continue to be developed (this is particularly true in the field of nanotechnology), information on toxic effects of familiar substances continues to increase (REACH is likely to ensure that this process accelerates) and control methods and good practice continue to be developed. On the other hand some facts that occupational hygienists have traditionally been expected to remember have become irrelevant with changes in industry and society.

It is not only unrealistic to expect a professional to absorb and remember a mass of facts, it is, in my opinion, poor practice. It is more important to know how and where to locate information than to memorise it – and then to be able to use it to analyse and solve problems. Of course, some facts need to be learned – but these need to be relevant to current circumstances.

The revamping of the BOHS’s module exams is an opportunity to revisit the syllabi and the exams. I’d like to see proper learning objectives established, based more on application of principles rather than memorising information, much of which is not that relevant to modern practice, and new questions set which can test these objectives.  The underpinning knowledge that needs to be memorised really needs to be reviewed, weeding out those facts and principles that are no longer that relevant.

At the moment it looks like this won’t be happening – the sample questions I’ve seem appear to be mainly reformatted versions of those currently in the multiple choice question bank. The new short answer questions should allow for more flexible marking, and negative marking is being eliminated, so overall the changes should be beneficial. However, I feel that a lot of work is still needed to bring the examination system into the 21st Century.