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Multicultural Challenges

Published: 29th Oct 2014

This article largely concerns health and safety training considerations, both commercial and practical, and experiences in the Middle East and Africa.

It will concentrate on the rise of accredited training from organisations such as NEBOSH, IOSH and OSHA, which despite originating outside these regions, are rapidly becoming the benchmark.

Firstly, to clarify a few things. Solely for the purposes of this article, and not as any form of social or political comment, I will assume the Middle East encompasses the gulf region as well as some countries that border on the Mediterranean, such as Turkey and Syria.

People, culture and language

The Middle East and Africa are large regions with diverse cultures and languages. The economies also vary enormously, which has lead to economic migration. Some of these countries have a very significant foreign worker population and this diversifies the language and cultural issues even further. This is especially true of the gulf region, which draws upon a large pool of migrant labour from India and the Philippines, often employed in lower paid, more manual roles that locals do not want. Some companies look after these workers quite well, providing accommodation, healthcare and food in purpose built communities. In some countries, however, they are treated as if they are disposable and the conditions under which they work are given little thought.

For historical reasons, as well as technology transfer, western European ex-pats also have a significant presence in the Gulf. It is these ex-pats and nationals who tend to hold the higher paid, professional roles. They are mostly well educated and can readily communicate in English as well as their native language.

In some gulf states foreign nationals outnumber nationals, which can feel a bit unsettling. Chinese immigration into South Africa is also noteworthy, though I am not sure it has influenced the uptake of tea drinking or reduced the appetite for Biltong.

Training demand

Given the nature of the sectors that are present in the Middle East and Africa including construction, mining, oil and gas, and power generation, safety training is very much in demand. These sectors have historically been high on the list of fatal accidents, in part due to their inherently hazardous nature.

Safety training demand varies from simple, very short and focused courses such as practical confined space entry, slinging and scaffolding, to the longer courses involving more management aspects. The latter courses are often formal qualifications, making them more attractive to discerning professionals. A small band of people pursues higher level qualifications, including MScs. This is partly because higher degrees are valued with a financial incentive and career progression.

Process safety management (PSM) is starting to become a topic of focus, inevitably due to the influence of high hazard industries such as oil and gas. PSM is aimed at avoiding catastrophic failures of process and plant. A collection of seemingly small failures, typically a lack of maintenance or routine bypassing of safety systems and procedures, can end up leading to large explosions or releases. Since these are high impact but rare events, monitoring safety in such cases requires a much more holistic approach, specifying meaningful safety indicators rather than the traditional ‘hard hat’ safety approach of years gone by. There is a particularly strong emphasis on leadership, as poor leadership can rapidly lead to a whole host of problems.

The oil and gas industry in particular is multi-national and so there is a large foreign presence, either directly or through joint ventures. This latter fact has tended to bring with it standards imported from outside the region and as a result the internationalisation - or at least recognition - of foreign health and safety standards and qualifications, especially from UK and USA.

Naturally, a few of these countries already have their own national safety qualifications, but some do not - nor do they even have a qualification framework. Even if they do, these are often little known outside the country concerned and have limited portability as a result. There are also systems, such as those in Bahrain and South Africa, by which national governments approve foreign courses and qualifications as ‘evidence of competency’ - effectively giving them national recognition.

Of the imports, NEBOSH, IOSH and OSHA approved/accredited courses are highly valued. NEBOSH, in particular, is becoming widely known and offers a range of qualifications on different topics including fire, construction, oil and gas and the environment. These are available at different levels, from basic awareness to advanced, university degree level. These are specifically aimed at the international market and each comes with rigorous examination requirements, which is one reason they are especially valued.

IOSH, too, offers a range of approved courses aimed at various levels, but mainly catering for introductory and basic levels. NEBOSH, IOSH and OSHA are run on a system whereby the training provider has to be accredited (i.e. quality assured) to be able to offer the courses.

Added to this is the fact that some governments either fund training directly, such as through the Labour Fund in Bahrain, or give tax breaks that encourage companies to spend money on training and development.

Training providers and centres

This demand for and recognition of foreign health and safety training has naturally led to local training providers seeking approval to deliver approved courses. In addition, existing approved foreign training providers have sought to deliver training in the region, either in flying visits for corporate clients and multinationals; through the establishment of local branches, joint ventures, agents and similar deals; or through e-learning and distance learning products. This has required organising examination centres locally, as most exams are not currently available online.

It's not always easy to setup new training centres for foreign workers or even locals. It's common for training centres to be regulated and inspected by governments, checking for minimum requirements including facilities such as prayer rooms, and even training room dimensions. Sometimes, what you are allowed to do depends on where you are – even within the same country – just take Dubai and Dubai knowledge village as an example. There is often a restriction on foreign ownership so having a local partner, sleeping or otherwise, is required.

Delivering training that counts

While there is clearly an appetite for western health and safety qualifications and training, it is not a simple matter of exporting these and hoping for the best. It is no simple matter to deliver them in the same manner they are delivered in the west as there are quite a few things that differ, including language, culture and terminology.

Traditional face-to-face classroom training remains the training of choice in the Middle East and Africa. The African market is perhaps more price sensitive, so there is also much interest in value for money e-learning and distance learning. In some African states it is simply not possible to run cost effective classroom courses unless you have access to a local trainer, but finding someone with the necessary qualifications and experience to meet accreditation body requirements can be challenging.

Fundamental to good training and learning is interacting with students using a variety of participative teaching methods, checking that students are learning (mostly informally), giving feedback to students on their progress, including correcting misunderstandings, and also having a trainer who pushes for continuous improvement. It also helps if the trainer has a personality - not necessarily charismatic - but at least easy to get along with and who is either genuinely interested in students learning or can convincingly act that way.

Although training methods are hugely variable, over the years I have encountered a number of common threads in some African and Middle Eastern countries. The following are just a few tips from my experience.

1. Expect different expectations of teaching and learning from yours. Although it is changing and not universal, a lecturing style has been most people's experience of training. Knowledge recall, rather than independent learning and problem solving, is sometimes all that people know. They are sometimes shocked, therefore, when asked to contribute, work things out or apply principles to new situations. It's not that they can't, they just haven't had the practise. There can therefore be a tendency to try to memorise model answers and repeat them in exams, which is dangerous as it can lead to accusations of cheating. Application, rather than pure memory, is what is commonly needed for western style exams - so allow the class time to practise this. My experience is thatstudents respond well to the variety of active teaching methods that have become best practice in western countries.

2. Don't be fooled by poor language skills. Language difficulties can make people appear slow, but they aren't – as I discovered when attending a training course in Turkey. Despite struggling to articulate in English, it later transpired that every single person on the course was an engineer. These were highly technical and able people gaining a low-level safety qualification. Language was the problem, not the concepts.

Surprisingly there is a great interest in health and safety training in English, even when this is not the official language of the country and when the training is available in other languages. This is especially so for intermediate and higher level training. I have been told that this is partly due to taking pride in being able to speak English.

Nevertheless, being able to offer training in other languages is both appreciated and necessary. Some qualification awarding bodies now understand this and also offer a range of languages for the examination itself.

3. Allow extra time. Partly due to language and partly due to culture, things can take longer than expected. Some countries are highly westernised and have similar work expectations to those running the courses, but other countries take a different view. Expect people to routinely turn up late, disappear during the day, take prayer breaks and have to be rounded up after breaks. Training during Ramadan could prove difficult. It can be frustrating to westerners, but it's just due to differences in cultures and needs to be factored in.

4. Try to use culturally and geographically relevant examples. The problem with some standard approved courses from western countries is that they assume everywhere is the same. Using a hazard spotting exercise based on cutting the garden lawn may seem like a good idea, but it's not something that is encountered too often in a largely desert landscape. Making sure your handouts and other materials don't inadvertently cause offence is an obvious precaution, but don't go overboard with this. If you get to know your students you will build a rapport with them and they will know you are not intending to upset them.

5. Appreciate that priorities may be different. It's all very well to debate the fine details of developing a better safety culture to get that last bit of performance improvement, but bear in mind that many countries in Africa and the Middle East need interventions at a more basic level - to stop people from being slaughtered in construction accidents or falling down unguarded holes. Any practical help to do that, or at least practical examples, will be appreciated.

6. Think beyond exams. Everyone wants to pass exams and while it's tempting to teach just to satisfy exams criteria, it's a mistake. While some people take a bit of convincing, students need to learn things that are useful both for the exam and to help them in their jobs.

Conclusion

In summary, Middle Eastern and African countries have seen a need for globally recognised and trusted standards of training and have adopted standard western health and safety qualifications. It must be kept in mind, however, that western approaches often still need adapting slightly in order to make them culturally relevant.

Published: 29th Oct 2014 in Health and Safety Middle East

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