This week and next, all students in years, 1-3 and 5 attend almost exclusively lectures, rather than seminars, which is traditional for the start of term. (Fourth years are away on apprenticeships in schools.) This means that I have no teaching at university. I have instead decided to attend informally lectures given by staff not in my home department. There is a formal procedure that can be conducted to gain permission to attend other lecturers’ classes – and indeed there is a requirement within departments to conduct ‘mutual visits’, so attending colleagues’ classes and assessing them; however, since I am unlikely to be given permission to attend officially, I am visiting lectures “undercover” and conducting, effectively, participant observation. I am of course recognised by my students but not by the staff.
This post concerns by experience of attending lectures in a course titled ‘Occupational Health and Safety’ (Охорона праці). This course is compulsory for fifth year students taking both the ‘specialist’ (equivalent to a PGDip) and the Master’s course. The course involves six hours of lectures and twelve hours of seminars in the second semester only, and follows on from work done in the third year. The Ukrainian university system involves significant numbers of compulsory courses – indeed students here have no choice at any point in their course choices – which are not related to their core subjects of foreign languages.
I observed this lecture in Occupational Health and Safety because it is one of the courses students typically have complained about as being irrelevant. Equally, it is a course that could offer insight into something of a tension between theory and practice in terms of health and safety in the workplace. I also observed the lecture for indication of student behaviour, as well as staff responses.
Today’s lecture was given by a woman who, like many staff here, appeared to be well over the state retirement age but has no intention of retiring, as it is possible to collect a full salary and a full salary-related state pension. The lecture began after fifteen minutes of administration, so partially checking attendance registers, while issuing a warning that she would be patrolling the lecture theatre (with some 100+ students) and checking that students were taking notes. She never carried out this threat, although once the lecturer lost control of the room – about 35 minutes in to her lecture – she again threatened the same, while singling out one student for laughing. Her attitude to the student was quite brutal, on the one hand, stating that “it’s rare for me to remember a particular student but when I do, the student will wish it had never happened.” She then used the informal ty, so like a French tous, when a Vy, vous, is normal, to tell the female student that she would be the first to answer in seminars next week. On the other hand, the lecturer was quite witheringly humourous in her put downs, noting that this student was sitting between two lads and this would obviously make anyone smile. Apart from those two lads, there were just two other males, including myself, in the room.
The content of the lecture was delivered fairly clearly and quite slowly, to the extent that I had no problem in following and taking notes. The theme of the lecture was Accidents, Injuries and Occupational Sickness in the Field of Education. Six questions were to be covered, from a typology of accidents and work-related illnesses through how to conduct investigations into workplace accidents, correct procedure, up to the question of monitoring of workplace health and safety. Factual information was given, with it becoming clear which statements the lecturer expected students to copy down verbatim in order to be able to repeat legal and technical definitions in the course exam. There was an outline of the procedure to take if an accident should occur in a school or university, or on an educational trip. The question that arose for me from this was, why was all this information being transmitted to every single student when a more sensible approach would be to ensure each department or school had a recognised health and safety officer? Equally, the insight into the state bureaucracies that needed to be informed of an accident, and which forms needed to be submitted and when, showed that for anyone involved in an accident, or that person’s families, it will not necessarily be easy to establish who was responsible for an accident.
Another interesting insight was in the section on work-related illnesses. In education, the lecturer stated, most likely illnesses for staff would be related to chemical issues caused by an unsuitable working environment or a negative impact on vision caused by using a computer. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to ask questions, so I did not get to inquire as to the psychosocial factors affecting psychological wellbeing, since it seems that in Britain at least, education professionals suffer significantly from stress. I imagine that in Ukraine, given that lecturers have a workload four times more intensive that their colleagues in Poland, for example, while students have at least 25% more hours than the average European student, that stress and depression must be higher here, even if it is not diagnosed officially. Psychosocial factors were mentioned, but only as causes of workplace accidents – meaning that a person under stress could neglect their duties or make a mistake, causing an accident. The workplace environment was never deemed a cause of psychological illness.
This is a rough outline of the lecture which, according to students, is effectively repeated three times, rather than any lecture giving additional insight beyond additional details into the Health and Safety process at work. In terms of behaviour, almost all students seemed to stop paying significant attention after 30 minutes, while some never engaged with the lecturer actively despite initial threats.
What was insightful for me was the outline of apparent chains of responsibility for university occupational health and safety, something that I will discuss in the following post which explores some workplace realities of health and safety.
The writing on the window and door reads: (lower left) No exit; (top right) Emergency exit; (lower right) Key is with the caretaker.