30th Anniversary of the IOM MSc by Joe Hughes


IOM in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen ran a modular MSc course in occupational hygiene. The course started 30 years ago this month with four students. Over the next twelve years we had more than 50 students participate in the course, and hundreds more joined one or more of the taught modules to increase their professional knowledge.

October 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the highly innovative sponsorship by IOM of an MSc programme in Occupational Hygiene. IOM have invited me to mark this anniversary with a post about the course which made such an impact on me.

The course ran over 10 consecutive years and trained a of practitioners who subsequently went on to become influential in their respective professional lives. 

I’ve answered a few questions in this piece to describe what the course meant to me personally, how it changed my life and why I’m so grateful to the wonderful professionals and academics who helped me develop so many valuable skills that have been enormously helpful to me in my working life. 


What made you decide to take the course?

I decided to take the course at 27 and my reasons for joining were quite straightforward.  My undergraduate performance had been rather chequered. 

I had embarked on a course of study that was a bit too narrowly focused for my interests and I had ended up graduating with a pretty mediocre BSc degree in Immunology from University of Glasgow.  Since then I had been working in the field of asbestos control, analysis and site-clearance activities for various laboratories in Central Scotland – where I had also carried out some basic workplace chemical sampling and noise surveying. 

As the COSHH regulations and Noise at Work Regulations had just been rolled out at this time there was a growing interest in the wider field of occupational hygiene. 

As soon as I heard that the MSc was on offer I knew straight away that it would give me the opportunity to upgrade my qualifications and move me onto a track that could eventually lead to me becoming a professional occupational hygienist. 

When my acceptance letter came through, I was absolutely delighted. 


How was the course structured?

The course itself was extremely well structured and had been thought-out carefully by course leader, John Cherrie (now Professor Cherrie). 

The IOM was running a series of Preliminary Certificates, known at the time as P Certs, under the syllabus of the precursor to what now is the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) Faculty of Occupational Hygienists. 

The MSc syllabus allowed masters’ and postgrad certificate participants to attend the P Cert courses (typically 5-day, intensive, single-topic practically and professionally oriented courses) which would be topped-up with more advanced lectures.  It also gave us the opportunity to mix with the P Cert course participants – who typically came from a range of industrial and governmental backgrounds (the oil and pharmaceuticals industries and the HSE were particularly well represented)

Although the first part of the initial 10-week term was in Edinburgh, the final part of the term was completed at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine (DEOM) at the University of Aberdeen. 

Professor Anthony Seaton, who had been a former Managing Director at the IOM, was the Head of the Department.  MSc Occupational Hygiene participants were joined by medical doctors on the MSc in Occupational Medicine course, for sessions in Epidemiology and Statistics, as well as other non-clinical subjects of shared relevance – for example toxicology and ergonomics. 

The first term concluded with paper-based exam paper and a challenging series of practical examinations.

The second term followed a similar format, but topics were more advanced and extended well beyond basic competencies (which were covered in the first term).  I vividly remember sessions on “Ethics and Occupational Hygiene” and “The Occupational Hygienist as an Expert Witness” which were real eye-openers.  Monitoring strategies, Management, Ergonomics and Epidemiology were explored in greater detail during this phase and subjects were chosen for the Research Project.   These courses were aimed at shaping decision making and improving professional judgement.


What did you choose for your own research project?

I chose a study on compliance with the COSHH regulations in one of the industrial sectors around Aberdeen as my research project. 

As I did not have a background in social studies research techniques, Rob Aitken, who had recently completed his MBA at that time, very kindly provided me with some pointers in the scientific use of questionnaires. 

Rob went on to have a glowing career, eventually becoming the CEO at the IOM.  I remember him as a kind individual who gave me some very useful support.  I wish him a very happy and (most of all) healthy retirement.


To what extent was IOM involved in the course?

Occupational hygiene lecturers from the IOM (at the time) such as John Cherrie, Robin Howie, Sheila Groat and Sally Spankie led the course and were supplemented by a range of guest lecturers from industry and academia – who were able to broaden-out the syllabus. 

Also, the range of IOM specialists in the wider fields of Statistics and Epidemiology (Drs Brian Miller and Hillary Cowie), Ergonomics (Dr Richard Graveling) and Occupational Medicine (Dr Eugene Waclawski) gave an incredible amount of additional richness, detail and perspective to our educational experience.

Then, of course, there was the experience of the facilities and laboratories at IOM and the direct help we received from so many people including, for me, Rob Aitken and Gordon Lynch who provided such valuable one to one support.



Any lasting memories of the course?

One of my lasting memories was my first day. I clearly remember arriving at the old IOM building in Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh, on a typically overcast early October morning in 1991.  I signed-in at the IOM reception desk and was directed to the lecture room on the top floor of the building.  I felt slightly apprehensive (I had given a full-time job of course) but overwhelmingly energised and positive about the up-and-coming learning experience.  The course organisers made us feel most welcome and settled us in from day one.

More generally I really enjoyed the class discussions - speaking to participants from a wider range of backgrounds kept discussions more interesting and interactive than they would have been otherwise. 

Courses in hazardous substance toxicity, sampling, risk management and control were brought to life by rich discussions.

The lecturers also made a big difference. They were always full of real-life stories to back-up the information they provided us, as they had been practitioners in the field for years and had great levels of experience to draw upon. 

Having the opportunity to see the IOM’s  laboratory operations in chemical analysis, mineralogical/asbestos analysis, and protective equipment testing was fascinating. Compared to other commercial laboratories it was like witnessing a quantum jump in professionalism.


How did the course help you professionally?

For me, the MSc was a real life-changer. Since I completed the course I have principally worked as an independent consultant in the field of occupational hygiene and working environment.  Most days I use some aspect of what I learned during the programme, and that knowledge has become part of my professional DNA.   I have had a hugely enjoyable working life and owe much of that to the impact of the course improving not only the breadth and depth of my knowledge, but also imparting a sense of true professionalism. 

My gratitude towards John Cherrie and the rest of the team who made the MSc possible is enormous.  I’m currently working in Kazakhstan and hope that some of IOM/DEOM spirit has been passed on to the young professionals here. 

My heartfelt thanks are owed to all of the academics, scientists, engineers, doctors and technicians who helped to change my life.  It’s good to know that, even after 30 years, some are still working at the Institute.


Final thoughts?

The IOM MSc set me up professionally for the rest of my career to date. I want to thank all those I have mentioned in this article including Occupational Hygiene experts John Cherrie, Robin Howie, Sheila Groat and Sally Spankie, as well as guest lecturers Drs Brian Miller and Hillary Cowie (Statistics and Epidemiology), Dr Richard Graveling (Ergonomics) and Dr Eugene Waclawski (Occupational Medicine).

Also a special mention to Gordon Lynch, the person from the IOM staff who was our “go-to” in supporting us with our practical exercises and field visits, who passed away a couple of years ago after a battle with cancer.  Gordon was an enormously likeable, hard-working and professional individual who had a very quick wit and a wonderfully dry sense of humour.  My experience of the course would have been a great deal poorer without him.