Overcoming ‘writers block’ during NEBOSH exams

When sitting a NEBOSH exam, it’s quite likely that sooner or later you’re going to hit a mental wall!

Either you’ll be sat there contemplating a blank white space, or you might have managed to scratch a few words out onto the page, but you’re painfully aware that it will not reap many marks once under the examiners scrutiny.

Well, fear not. There is a very simple way to get more point-scoring ink on that page!

First, have a quick read of the first few lines of a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling:

I have six honest serving men
They taught me all I knew
There names are What, and Where and When;
and Why and How and Who.

– Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).

This short passage serves very well as a reminder to ask questions when exploring a concept or topic. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions in particular can be very helpful when attempting to flesh out an exam answer.

Let’s take a look at a NEBOSH exam question and apply the technique.

Outline information that should be included in the ‘arrangements’ section of a health and safety policy.

This question is worth 8 marks and uses the ‘outline’ action word. This means that the answer needs to go beyond a simple list of information. However, starting off with a list would be a good way to ensure that the answer has enough breadth. Think breadth, then depth is something I often repeat when teaching during NEBOSH courses.

A list might look like this:

  1. Safe systems of work
  2. Risk assessments
  3. Monitoring procedures
  4. Specific hazards
  5. Training
  6. Equipment
  7. Welfare
  8. Incident reporting procedures
  9. Emergency procedures
  10. Communication/consultation

Notice that there are 10 items on that list. An old adage for NEBOSH exam questions is ‘make a point to gain a point’, ie, if there are 8 points up for grabs, make sure your answer covers at least 8 points. A good habit to get into is always provide a couple of extra points. That way, even if a couple of your points don’t score marks, you still have a chance of reaping the maximum number of marks for the question.

So, at this point, we’ve gone for breath first and have ensured our list covers a good range of information to be included in the arrangements section.

As it stands now though, I can tell you that we will only score a maximum of three points with our list, and that’s with the assumption that our list is 100% technically accurate!

This is because the question calls for an outline, not just a list. NEBOSH examiners are under instruction to ensure that a list answer never gains even half the number of points available (when the action word is outline, describe or explain – obviously, if the action word is list, then you’re expected to leave it as a list).

What we now need to do is flesh out our list with additional information and this is where many candidates can really struggle when it comes to answering NEBOSH exam questions properly.

This is where the who, what, why, when, where how line of questioning can be useful. Let’s go ahead and turn our list into a proper answer by ‘outlining’ each of the items, by using these questions:

  1. Safe systems of work – procedures (often documented) for ensuring that work is conducted safely and without risks to health. (What)
  2. Risk assessments – recording the hazards and consequences for the full range of work activities so that suitable controls can be selected. (Why)
  3. Monitoring procedures – such as workplace inspections to identify unsafe acts and/or conditions. (What)
  4. Specific hazards – such as stress at work and how the organisation sets out to manage it. (What)
  5. Training – records of training provided along with information about competencies required for each job role or work activity to enable a gap analysis. (Why)
  6. Equipment – a register of hazardous equipment within the workplace so that inspection and maintenance processes can be put in place for them. (Why)
  7. Welfare – facilities required for the general welfare of employees such as toilets, sinks etc. which help to minimise the spread of germs. (Why)
  8. Incident reporting procedures – to help identify patterns and trends, which could be caused by uncontrolled hazards. (Why)
  9. Emergency procedures – detailing everyone’s responsibilities and actions in emergency situations such as fire, structural failure etc. (What)
  10. Communication/consultation – such as communication channels used by the company and how access and use them effectively. (What)

So, now we have provided a sufficient level of detail in response to the ‘outline’ action word by using what or why questions.

It might take a bit of practice until this process starts to come naturally. And it can sometimes lead you your feel as though you are stating the obvious.

But, many a mark can be gained by using this simple technique.