Safety, Risk and Reliability Engineering (distance learning only) MSc/Diploma

  • Delivery: Distance Learning
  • Programme type: Taught Programme
  • Study location: Edinburgh
  • Entry date: September, January (DL only)


Risk has become a key concept in modern society. Growing concern about the environment and a number of disasters have served to focus attention on the hazards and risks involved in a wide range of activities from offshore oil production to rail and air transport; from the design of football stadia to the operation of chemical plants and environmental protection. Today there is a wide range of techniques available to assess risk and reliability, both in relation to safety and in the wider sense. These techniques now underpin new legislation on safety and have relevance over a broad spectrum of activities, including environmental and other systems, where risk and reliability are key concerns.

The MSc/PG Diploma programme in Safety, Risk and Reliability Engineering is designed to give a thorough understanding of these techniques and experience of their application to a variety of real-world problems. It aims to provide students with an understanding of safety, risk and reliability engineering in both a qualitative and quantitative manner, and to develop the skills to apply this understanding. The programme will also introduce students to recent developments in analytical techniques, e.g. computer modelling of risk, reliability and safety problems.

Distance learning

Delivered only by Independent Distance Learning (IDL) this programme is ideal for those in employment or with other commitments, providing flexible study options that fit around work or family. Students receive comprehensive materials for each course through an online Virtual Learning Environment.

Programme duration

An Independent Distance Learning (IDL) programme - whether at PgDip or MSc level - can be completed in a minimum of 2 years. On average, our PgDip programmes studied via IDL are completed in 2-3 years, while MSc programmes are completed in 2.5-7 years. Most students intend to complete their studies via IDL within 2-3 years.

Professional recognition

This MSc degree is accredited as meeting the requirements for Further Learning for a Chartered Engineer (CEng) for candidates who have already acquired an Accredited CEng (Partial) BEng(Hons) or an Accredited IEng (Full) BEng/BSc (Hons) undergraduate first degree. See for further information.

The MSc and PgDip degrees have also been accredited by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). Graduates are eligible to join IOSH as Graduate members and then undertake an initial professional development process that leads to Chartered membership.

Industry links

This programme and the associated Safety and Risk Management programme have been developed with the assistance of staff and ex-graduates working in relevant fields. Many companies support our programmes and employ our graduates.

In addition, this programme is also supported by the Civil Engineering Industry Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from major multi-national employers AECOM, ARUP, Balfour Beatty, Halcrow, Jacobs and WSP Group. This committee convenes regularly and advises on the programme content and structure, ensuring quality, up-to-date content and relevance to industry needs.

The Institute for Infrastructure and Environment (IIE)

This programme is delivered by Heriot Watt University’s Institute for Infrastructure and Environment. As a Safety, Risk and Reliability Engineering postgraduate student you will be part of the Institute’s Graduate School, connecting you with staff, research associates and fellow students engaging in cutting-edge research in areas such as water management, ultra-speed railways, construction materials, geomechanics and more.

Teaching and research excellence

The School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society has a strong record in built environment research. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2014), more than 70% of our overall rating was classed ‘internationally excellent’ or ‘world-leading’.

Programme content

The MSc/Postgraduate Diploma in Safety, Risk and Reliability Engineering, led by Dr. Pauline Thompson, is only available by attendance-free distance learning. The programme comprises eight courses. All courses have written examinations and some have compulsory coursework elements. MSc students are also required to complete a Masters dissertation.

Semester 1Semester 2
  • Risk Assessment and Safety Management
  • Systems Reliability
  • Data Analysis and Simulation
  • Human Factors Methods
  • Learning from Disasters
  • Safety, Risk and Reliability
  • Fire Safety, Explosions and Process Safety
  • Environmental Impact Assessment

Course descriptions

Please find below the course descriptions. For more information on courses, please contact the Programme Leader.

Risk Assessment and Safety Management

Semester 1(mandatory)

This courses aims to give students an appreciation of risk from individual and societal perspectives as well as understanding the basic principles of risk assessment and modelling and how safety management works in practice. Subjects include:

The concept and perceptions of hazards and risk. Risk attitudes and impact on decision-making; Interpretations of probability; Quantitative and qualitative aspects of risk; Modelling of decision making under conditions of risk; Inherent Safety; HAZOP; Safety management systems such as BS EN ISO 14000 series and other standards; Application of Safety Management Systems to failed systems and as a preventative tool.

Systems Reliability

Semester 1(mandatory)

Gives an understanding of the qualitative and quantitative techniques that are used in the reliability, availability and maintainability analysis of all types of engineering systems. The syllabus is:

Basic concepts of reliability, availability and maintainability; Failure rates, failure modes, and reliability data; Reliability of systems by reliability block diagram analysis of series and parallel systems; Reliability Centred Maintenance, including replacement strategy, and inspection of standby systems; Markov modelling of system failures; Probabilistic safety analysis, based on Failure Modes Effects and Criticality Analysis, Event trees and Fault trees.

Learning from Disasters

Semester 2(mandatory)

Gives students an in depth understanding of some of the classic disasters and their consequences by using a range of practical accident investigation techniques. Students will learn to analyse complex histories in order to find the underlying root cause. Topics covered:

Accident models; Root cause and accident analysis techniques concentrating on events and causal factors analysis, barrier analysis, change analysis and the management oversight and risk tree; Review a number of famous disasters including Piper Alpha, Herald of Free Enterprise, Bhopal, Clapham Junction etc.; Identify lessons learned from these disasters; Review some of the major safety lessons from historical disasters; Analyse a real disaster in detail using a number of practical techniques

Safety, Risk and Reliability

Semester 2(mandatory)

This course aims to provide the students with an appreciation and understanding of the basic principles of structural reliability theory. It provides an introduction to concepts of structural safety and risk, as well as probability theory and probability distributions.

Specific topics covered in the course syllabus include: Probabilistic modelling of strength and loads; first order second moment and first order reliability methods; reliability-based code calibration; Monte-Carlo simulation and variance reduction techniques; Introduction to causes of structural deterioration (corrosion, fatigue and fracture); risk based inspection strategies using Bayesian methods.

Fire Safety, Explosions and Process Safety

Semester 2(mandatory)

Introduces students to the basic principles of fire safety science and engineering, and develops skills in associated modelling leading to an understanding of principal fire/explosion related issues in process safety. Subjects include:

Objectives of fire safety science and engineering; Fire chemistry: stoichiometric burning, ignition, flammability limits; Mechanisms of heat transfer; The burning process; flashpoint, firepoint, flame spread; Fires in enclosures; computer-based models of fire development. Flashover & backdraught; Life threat, human behaviour, evacuation; Fire severity & fire resistance. Probabilistic modelling; Explosions: deflagrations, detonations, fire-balls; Fire related aspects of process safety. Piper Alpha disaster.

Data Analysis and Simulation

Semester 1(mandatory)

This course develops knowledge of statistical data analysis and its application in engineering and science and introduces the concepts of using simulation techniques for analysis of complex systems. It also teaches linear optimisation techniques and the ability to apply them to solve simple problems.

Topics covered: Introduction to statistics; Basics of probability theory; Probability distributions; Sampling and confidence intervals; Hypothesis testing; Data correlation and regression analysis; Random number generation; Simulation and modelling; Elements of queuing theory; Introduction to optimisation techniques.

Human Factors Methods

Semester 1(mandatory)

This course will equip students from academic and/or industrial backgrounds with knowledge on, and the means to deploy, a wide range of specialist human factors techniques. The emphasis is on method selection, application, combination and integration within existing business practices. Students will develop a critical awareness of what methods exist, how to apply them in practice and their principle benefits and limitations.

The syllabus includes: Introduction to human factors problems and human factors methods; Task analysis; Cognitive task analysis; Human error identification; Situation awareness assessment; Mental workload assessment; Team assessment; Interface analysis; Design methods; Performance time prediction; Method integration; Human factors integration.

Environmental Impact Assessment

Semester 2(mandatory)

Provides students with the knowledge and understanding of the principles and processes of the Environmental Impact Assessment. By the end of the course, the student should be familiar with the European EIA legislation and its translation into the Scottish planning system, and be able to demonstrate an understanding of the EIA process, the tools and the agents involved in an EIA and the possible problems with using EIA as a decision making tool. . It is also intended that the student will be able to appreciate the purpose of the EIA process from a number of perspectives; that of a developer, an EIA practitioner and a policy maker.

Topics include: Introduction to EIA; European EIA Legislation; Screening and Scoping; Baseline Studies, Analysis and Prediction of Impact; Consultation, Review and Monitoring; Beyond EIA: Strategic and Social Impact Assessment


MSc students are also required to complete an individual project (dissertation). This programme has a stronger engineering bias and you should only attempt this if you have done some University level mathematics or equivalent. Otherwise the Safety and Risk Management course might be more appropriate.

For the project component of the programme distance learners are likely to develop something based in their country of residence with advice and supervision from staff in the School. This may well include work with a local company or may involve independent study. Individual arrangements will be set up with each student.

Programme leader

Pauline Thompson has been working on our safety MScs since 2002. She teaches three of the courses on each of the two safety programmes, has contributed to most of the other courses within the two programmes and supervises many of the student dissertations on these programmes. Her research includes many aspects of risk analysis and sustainability with applications in civil engineering.

Your career

Graduate profiles

Linda Cottrell

  • Degree MSc Safety, Risk and Reliability Engineering
  • Present jobLead Reliability Engineer, Pump Systems R&D, Aker Solutions
Linda Cottrell

Linda graduated with an MSc in Safety, Risk and Reliability Engineering in 2012 and now works for Aker Solutions in Norway.

Could you tell us about your current role?

I work in research and development on leading edge, subsea technology. We develop subsea processing pumps, electric motors and the support systems for them.

What was your experience of doing a Postgraduate degree at Heriot-Watt University?

It was excellent! Although I already had considerable experience in some aspects of my field, my degree introduced me to a much broader field and many new applications. As I was enrolled in an Independent Distance Learning programme, my professional network  increased globally and I made many new friends. And I loved the ability to make my own hours and arrange my studies around other things in my life, such as my family commitments. 

Do you think your Heriot-Watt postgraduate experience gave you an edge in your chosen field and why?

My postgraduate experience did give me an edge for several reasons.  Some are as simple as having a Masters degree as evidence of my capability. But I think that more importantly, it exposed me to a very broad view of my field and a wide variety of applications. The theoretical aspects of safety, risk and reliability engineering were enhanced with applications from a number of industries. The university is also well respected in the oil and gas industry where I began the next phase of my career.

What advice would you give to a PG student considering embarking on their journey of a lifetime at Heriot-Watt?

My experience studying through the Independent Distance Learning programme was absolutely brilliant. A postgraduate degree is hard but very rewarding work and Heriot-Watt University rewards academic ability with knowledge and skills that are sought by companies in many industries. I highly recommend it.

Career opportunities

There is an increasing demand for personnel to be able to cross the divide between the technical expertise of safety engineering and the management of an organisation and its employees.

To be effective in this role requires a good understanding of many complex safety issues whilst appreciating the wider picture. In addition the contribution of safety related losses in a business strategy is often overlooked. For example, minor slips, trips and manual handling operations account for the largest proportion of staff time lost to work-related ill-health and injury.

It is thus important that a safety and risk manager should have a good understanding of the major safety issues likely to affect the function of the organisation.

Entry requirements

For MSc level entry applicants must have:

  • Minimum of 2:2 honours degree or equivalent academic qualification in cognate and semi-cognate subject area. For PG conversion programmes, non-cognate degrees will be considered. Corporate (or chartered) membership of relevant professional institutions will also be considered.

For PG Diploma level entry applicants must have:

  • Third class honours degree in a cognate or semi-cognate subject area PLUS 2 years of relevant experience at an appropriate level completed post qualification.
  • Cognate or semi-cognate ordinary degree PLUS 3-4 years of relevant experience at an appropriate level following graduation. 
  • Candidates who do not meet the above entry requirements or have no formal academic qualifications will be considered individually based on their CV and interview.  Admission via this route will be at the discretion of the Director of Admissions and the number of successful applicants will be restricted. 

There is no entry at PG Certificate level except through exceptional agreement with approved learning partners.

Non-graduating study at masters level:

  • Entry is based on CV or on formal academic qualifications or graduate (or incorporated) membership of a relevant professional institution. 

English language requirements

If English is not the applicant’s first language a minimum of IELTS 6.5 or equivalent is required with all elements passed at 6.0 or above. 

Applicants who have previously successfully completed programmes delivered in the medium of English language may be considered and will be required to provide documentary evidence of this. Examples would be secondary school education or undergraduate degree programme. A minimum of at least one year of full time study (or equivalent) in the medium of English language will be required. 

We offer a range of English language courses to help you meet the English language requirement prior to starting your masters programme:

  • 14 weeks English (for IELTS of 5.5 with no more than one skill at 4.5);
  • 10 weeks English (for IELTS of 5.5 with minimum of 5.0 in all skills);
  • 6 weeks English (for IELTS 5.5 with minimum of 5.5 in reading & writing and minimum of 5.0 in speaking & listening)

Distance learning students

Please note that independent distance learning students who access their studies online will be expected to have access to a PC/laptop and internet.

Tuition fees

Tuition fees for 2016 entry (by residency status)
Status*Distance Learning**
Scotland / Non-UK EU£1162
England/Northern Ireland/Wales£1162

* If you are unsure which category you fall in to, you should complete a fee status enquiry form, which allows us to assess your fees.

** Fee per course

Additional fee information

*** £1162 per course, £1660 per Dissertation. This programme consists of 8 courses (modules). MSc students are also required to submit a Masters dissertation.

For Independent Distance Learning fees, please check the IDL Tuition and Exam Fees document.

Scholarships & bursaries

We aim to encourage well-qualified, ambitious students to study with us and we offer a wide variety of scholarships and bursaries to achieve this. Over £6 million worth of opportunities are available in fee and stipend scholarships, and more than 400 students benefit from this support.

View our full range of postgraduate taught scholarships and postgraduate research scholarships.