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Do undergraduate engineering faculty include occupational and public health and safety in the engineering curriculum?

The Professional Engineer's Code of Ethics includes the responsibility "to hold paramount the public safety, health, and welfare," (1) and yet several recent reports suggest that few undergraduate engineering programs include any structured course material relevant to identifying environmental threats to health and controlling occupational and public health and safety hazards (2,3,4,5,6,7,8). Because environmental health professionals must work with engineers in preventing and controlling environmental hazards, both in occupational and public health settings, it is of the utmost importance that engineering students and practitioners are sensitized to the relevance of health and safety in their design and evaluation strategies.

The objectives of this study were to determine whether engineering faculty are including occupational and public health and safety material in their undergraduate engineering courses, why engineering faculty choose to include or not include these areas in their courses, what sources engineering faculty use to locate health and safety materials for use in their courses, and what research backgrounds engineering faculty have in the areas of health and safety.

Methods

A questionnaire probing faculty interest in and instructional commitment to occupational and public health and safety was mailed to 324 undergraduate engineering professors in 112 U.S. colleges of engineering. (A subset of the questions asked is contained in Tables 1 and 2.) These 324 professors were divided into three groups of 108 engineering professors. The first group consisted of professors who had attended any of five National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-sponsored workshops for engineering faculty. Members of the other two groups were selected at random: the second group were professors, from the same discipline and university as those who attended the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-sponsored workshops, selected randomly from the 1991-1992 college and university catalogs on microfiche, while the third group were engineering professors from the same discipline but from different universities than the first two groups. This selection process was facilitated by assembling a list from the 1992 Directory of Engineering and Engineering Technology Undergraduate Programs and the 1992 Love Joy's College Guide to identify universities not represented at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health workshops. Colleges and universities were selected at random from these college/university lists, and the faculty were then randomly selected from the 1991-1992 college and university catalogs on microfiche. One hundred seventy-five questionnaires were returned. Eighteen of these questionnaires were excluded, yielding 157 questionnaires (response rate = 51%) for analysis, because the faculty was either retired or had left the university setting. Ninety-seven percent of those faculty responding were from undergraduate engineering programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Fifty-six undergraduate engineering professors were from group 1, 51 from group 2, and 50 from group 3, representing 65 colleges of engineering.

The data were analyzed by contrasting the positive responses ("mildly" plus "strongly" positive) with the neutral plus negative responses to the survey questionnaire.

Results

The majority of engineering faculty believed it is necessary to address occupational health and safety (78.8%) and public health and safety (73.7%) in undergraduate engineering courses. Currently, 57.3% address occupational health and safety in their courses, while 41.8% address public health and safety. Based on feedback to faculty, most engineering students felt that inclusion of health and safety content in undergraduate engineering classes was professionally useful (occupational health and safety, 82.0%, and public health and safety, 82.9%). Only 36.6% of faculty had conducted research in occupational health and safety and 29.7% in public health and safety.

Table 1 shows the factors, in approximate rank order, that contributed to an engineering faculty member's decision to include or not include occupational health and safety and public health and safety issues in engineering courses. The data concerning factors that motivated faculty to include health and safety are based on engineering professors who currently are addressing these issues in their courses.

The most common reasons for including occupational health and safety and public health and safety in undergraduate engineering courses were personal interest, ethical considerations, and departmental encouragement, although a substantial proportion of respondents also indicated that concern for increasing personal liability, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology requirements, and research experience were among the motivating factors. A dean's encouragement, alumni influence, interest from graduate students, and the American Public Health Association or other professional conferences or workshops all ranked below 20% for both occupational health and safety and public health and safety.
Table 1. Faculty Reasons to Address or not Address Health and Safety Issues in
Undergraduate Engineering Courses.


 OH&S PH&S
Factors(*) N=89 Rank N=64 Rank


Personal interest 93.3% (1) 92.2% (1)
Ethical considerations 82.0% (2) 78.1% (2)
Departmental encouragement 59.6% (3) 53.1% (3)
Concern for increasing personal liability 51.7% (4) 43.8% (5)
ABET requirement 50.6% (5) 42.2% (6)
Research experience 47.2% (6) 50.0% (4)
Professional society influence 34.8% (7) 37.5% (8)
Colleague influence 25.8% (8) 20.3% (11)
Scientific journals 24.7% (9) 34.4% (9)
Engineering conferences or workshops 23.6% (10) 25.4% (10)
Availability of good materials 21.3% (11) 42.2% (7)
Dean's encouragement 18.0% (12) 18.8% (12)
Alumni influence 13.6% (13) 14.1% (14)
Interest from graduate students 13.0% (14) 18.8% (13)
APHA conferences or workshops 2.2% (15) 1.6% (15)


* Factors that have contributed to faculty decisions to address health and
safety issues in their courses. (Responses from faculty who are currently
addressing health and safety issues.)


 OH&S PH&S
Factors(*) N=66 Rank N=82 Rank


No room in curriculum 68.2% (1) 58.3% (2)
Not relevant to the courses I teach 62.1% (2) 61.4% (1)
Few materials currently available 42.4% (3) 42.7% (3)
Unable to develop my own materials 39.4% (4) 37.3% (4)
No encouragement from the department 30.3% (5) 28.9% (5)
Information is covered in other 29.2% (6) 20.7% (6)
engineering classes
Not interested in health and 21.2% (7) 20.7% (6)
safety issues


* Factors that have contributed to faculty decisions not to address health and
safety issues in their courses. (Responses from faculty who are not currently
addressing health and safety issues.)


Faculty who currently are not including occupational health and safety or public health and safety in engineering course work cited lack of room in the curriculum, lack of relevance to course content, and lack of materials readily available as the most common reasons for not doing so. Thus the results indicate that those who are integrating occupational and public health and safety into their course work do so because of personal reasons, whereas those who are not tend to cite university, organizational, or departmental reasons. Table 2 shows what sources of information engineering faculty currently use to develop health and safety materials for their classes. Most engineering faculty develop their own materials, while other sources include reliance on colleagues, scientific journals, and professional societies. Neither alumni nor professional conferences or workshops were a common source of information.
Table 2. Sources for Developing Health and Safety Materials to Use in
Undergraduate Engineering Courses.


 OH&S PH&S
Factors(*) N=86 Rank N=61
Rank


Develop own material 84.9% (1) 85.2%
(1) Colleagues 41.9% (2) 44.3%
 (2) Scientific journals 40.7% (3)
65.0% (3) Professional society 34.1% (4)
 50.8% (4) Engineering conferences or workshops 31.4% (5)
 27.9% (5) Review of other universities curricula/courses 22.4%
(6) 23.0% (6) Alumni 12.8%
 (7) 13.1% (7) APHA conferences or workshops
2.3% (8) 4.9% (8)


* Engineering faculty use the following sources of information to develop the
health and safety materials for their classrooms. (Responses from faculty who
are currently addressing health and safety issues.)


Discussion

One potential source of error warrants discussion. One-third of the study participants previously had attended a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-sponsored workshop for engineering faculty. These faculty probably had stronger interests in health and safety than did engineering faculty in general. Thus the study results concerning the importance of including health and safety in the engineering curriculum may have been overstated.

This possible source of error notwithstanding, the study results suggest the following conclusions:

1) Faculty currently including occupational health and safety and public health and safety material in courses are motivated by departmental encouragement and personal interest and feel ethically obligated to discuss health and safety issues in their courses.

2) Faculty not including health and safety believe that there is inadequate room in the curricula to cover these topics or that health and safety are not relevant to the courses they teach. In this regard, it is interesting to note that a study conducted at Tufts University demonstrated that undergraduate engineering students believe that "a knowledge of occupational health issues is a necessity. in engineering practice" (9). These students participated in classes which faculty had integrated occupational health and safety information into their course content. The Tufts' study also ascertained that students believe that a course in health and safety should be required for undergraduate engineering students (9).

3) The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology requirement to address health and safety was not a convincing factor for many faculty.

4) Most faculty who include health and safety in their courses develop their own materials and then seek out additional information from a variety of sources.

Based on these conclusions, the following recommendations are suggested:

1) Engineering administrators should provide opportunities for faculty to learn about the importance of health and safety engineering. The material to be included should emphasize the specific responsibilities described in the Professional Engineer's Code of Ethics (1,10,11,12). In addition, business and industry representatives should be given an opportunity to provide input into the health and safety engineering curricula to assure that their needs in these areas are met (13,14). The past decade has shown an increase in employers who give preference in employment to engineering students who have backgrounds that include occupational and public health and safety (15).

2) Following the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's example, the American Public Health Association, the National Environmental Health Association, and other professional societies and associations should facilitate the development of health and safety course materials that can be integrated into the undergraduate engineering curriculum.

3) The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology should consider defining more specifically its accreditation criteria in health and safety and denying accreditation to any program that does not meet these requirements.

4) Networks, including electronic mailing lists of interested faculty, should be established for undergraduate engineering faculty so they may share the health and safety-related materials and information they are using in their courses. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has established an Engineering Faculty Network that has begun to address this need.

Engineers have a fundamental role in preventing and controlling environmental occupational and public health and safety hazards. Fulfillment of this role requires the commitment of engineering educational programs and their accrediting bodies, in conjunction with sponsors of educational resources including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the American Public Health Association, and the National Environmental Health Association.

References

1. Oregon Administrative Rules (1991), Board of Engineering Examiners, Chapter 820, Division 20, Fundamental Canons 820-20-010.

2. Conway, J. B. (1991), "On the Need to Teach Science to Environmental Health Students," J. Environ. Health 54(3):29-31.

3. Paustenbach, D. J. (1984), "Occupational Safety," Mech. Eng., 106(3):76-82.

4. Crowl, D.A., J. F. Louvar (1988), "Safety and Loss Prevention in the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Dual Perspective," Chem. Eng. Education, 22:74-79.

5. Fleischman, M. (1988), "Rationale for Incorporating Health and Safety into the Curriculum," Chem. Eng. Education, 22:30-34.

6. Talty, J. T., J. B. Waiters (1987,) "Integration of Safety and Health into Business and Engineering School Curricula," Professional Safety, Sept 26-31.

7. Talty, J. T. (1986,) "Integrating Safety and Health Issues into Engineering School Curricula," Chem. Eng. Progress, Oct 13-16.

8. Main, B. W., J. P. Frantz (1994), "How Design Engineers Address Safety: What the Safety Community Should Know," Professional Safety, February 33-37.

9. Rossignol, A. M., N. B. Hanes (1990), "Introducing Occupational Safety and Health Material Into Engineering Courses," Engineering Education, April 430-432.

10. Hanes, N. B., A. M. Rossignol, L. Edgers, et al. (1987), "Safety and Health Materials for Integration into Engineering Curricula," Int. J. of Appl. Eng. Education, 3:475-487.

11. Rossignol, A. M., N. B. Hanes (1990), "Introducing Occupational Safety and Health Material into Engineering Courses," J. of Eng. Education, 80:430-432.

12. Gute, D. M., A. M. Rossignol, N. B. Hanes, J.T. Tally (1993), "Factors Affecting the Permanence of Occupational Health and Safety Materials in Engineering Courses," J. of Eng. Education, 82: 163-166.

13. Bethea, R. M. (1992), "Engineers Encourage Universities to Emphasize Safety in Curriculum," Occupational Health and Safety, 61(6): 22-29.

14. Kavianian, H. R., N. Meshkati, C. A. Wentz, J. K. Rao (1993), "Should Engineering Schools Address Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health Issues," Professional Safety, June 1993, pp. 48-49.

15. Smart, B. (1992), Beyond Compliance, A New Industry View of the Environment, World Resource Institute.

Dr. Annette M. Rossignol, Sc.D., Professor, Department Chair, Public Health, Oregon State University, Waldo Hall 256, Corvallis, OR 97331-6406
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Author:Talty, John T.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:2238
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