NEBOSH Certificate · revision

NEBOSH Certificate Command Words -Why Are They So Important?

Many students studying NEBOSH Certificate qualifications get confused with the NEBOSH
“Command Words” in Certificate exam questions.NEBOSH qualifications are recognized as the mark of a health and safety practitioner the world over.

Frequently, students will ask questions such as:

“What is a command word?”
“What do they mean?”
“How much detail do I need in my answer to get good marks for these command words?”
“Have I written enough to answer the question correctly?

NEBOSH have produced a comprehensive guidance document explaining
what Command Words are and how questions should be answered for each type of Command Word. This guidance can be found at the NEBOSH web page – select the PDF document from the list on the right of the NEBOSH web page called Guidance on command words -certificate. The guidance is available in 6 languages in addition to English.

What is a Command Word?

Command Words (or action verbs) are used in the learning outcomes of the Certificate syllabus to indicate how much and how deep a student’s knowledge and understanding should be of that particular topic or area.

The same command words used in the learning outcomes can then be used in exam questions to test the student on that particular topic or area.

What do they mean and have I written enough in my answer for that Command Word?

Generally speaking, command words such as “Explain” and “Describe” require more detail than “Identify” or “Outline”.

The information below is based upon the NEBOSH guidance referred to and may prove useful in explaining what each command word means and the level of detail that may be required in your answer to the exam question. Download the Astutis NEBOSH Command Words table .

Command Word: Identify

What does Identify mean?

Write down the things, issues, and items. Normally a word or a short sentence will be enough, providing it is clear.

Example Question and Answer (taken from NEBOSH Guidance) using Identify

Identify FOUR types of safety sign AND give an example in each caseWarning sign
Prohibition signs – e.g. No smoking
Warning signs – e.g. Caution hot surface
Mandatory signs – e.g. Wear hearing protection
Emergency or safe condition signs – e.g. first-aid box

Command Word: Give

What does Give mean?

Write down an example of, or the meaning of something. Normally a word or a short sentence.

Command Word: Outline

What does Outline mean?

Write down the important, key points or issues. A long description is not required. What is needed is a short summary of the key / important points of what is asked for in the question.

Example Question and Answer (taken from NEBOSH Guidance) using Outline

Outline FOUR types of safety sign.

  1. Prohibition signs: circular with a red border, red diagonal bar and a black symbol
  2. Warning signs: triangular with a yellow background, black border and symbol
  3. Mandatory signs: circular with a blue background, white border and white symbol
  4. Emergency or safe condition signs: rectangular with a green background, white border and white symbol

Command Word: Describe

What does Describe mean?

Write down detailed information about the main features of something. It should be factual and without trying to explain anything.

When describing something, another person should be able to see in their mind what you are talking about.

Example Question and Answer (taken from NEBOSH Guidance) using Describe

Describe the mechanical hazards associated with a bench grinder
An entanglement hazard would be associated with the rotating spindle that the abrasive wheel is mounted on. Drawing in and trapping is associated with the gap between the tool rest and the rotating abrasive wheel. Friction or abrasion hazards would be associated with the surface of the rotating abrasive wheel and stabbing or puncture hazards could be created by flying fragments or pieces of ejected broken wheel.

Command Word: Explain

What does Explain mean?

Write down an understanding of an item or issue.
This is checking that you know or understand something.
This word often appears in questions as “Explain how…” or “Explain why….”

Example Question and Answer (taken from NEBOSH Guidance) using Explain

Explain how sensitive protective equipment (trip device) can reduce the risk of contact with moving parts of machinery.
Sensitive protective equipment is designed to identify the presence of a person or body part within the danger zone of machinery. Examples of such devices include pressure mats and light beams which are connected to the machine controls and would stop the machine rapidly should a person or body part be detected.


Make sure that you read the exam question carefully, identify the command word and understand what it is required of you within the context /meaning of the question. You should also practice questions with different command words in your own study time to give you a broad experience in answer questions with different command words.

To summarise

Command words are there to indicate how much understanding and knowledge youDemonstrate your knowledge

should have for a particular topic within the Certificate syllabus. You can therefore use them when preparing for exams to check if you have enough knowledge and understanding of that topic.

Don’t let command words confuse you and worry whether you are writing enough in your answer to satisfy the command word in the question. Don’t lose sight of what the question is asking you.

Use the guide above to understand what is required by each command word. Let the command words guide you in your answer to enable you to demonstrate in your exams the level of knowledge and understanding you have.

Download the Astutis NEBOSH Command Words table

Considering taking the NEBOSH Certificate in Occupational Health & Safety? Click to find out more

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