Occupational Health and Safety Specialists

There are approximately 56,000 occupational health and safety specialists in the United States. Job growth indicators suggest that over the next decade, the field will grow by 11%; this is within the average rate of growth range for all types of work.

Occupational health and safety specialists protect employees, the public, enhance employee productivity by decreasing chronic absence and equipment breakdowns, and save companies money by reducing the costs of insurances and workers’ compensation dues as well as by lowering or eliminating governmental fines. Occupational health and safety specialists evaluate work settings for hazards and create programs aimed at minimizing or eliminating injury or illness. Occupational health and safety specialists also focus on ergonomics to determine if furniture or machinery encourages proper body alignment and diminishes fatigue. Specialists notify managers of State and Federal law violations, as well as noncompliance with the employer’s own policies, and offer advice regarding health and safety program costs and success. Some occupational specialists train employees regarding new regulations or policies, while others use historical data and other information to predict the likelihood of hazards; for example, injury data might reveal patterns that indicate certain types of injury are caused by procedural failure, system breakdown, or human error. This permits specialists to anticipate accident probability and severity and determine what types of controls might diminish risk.

When accidents or sickness occurs, occupational health and safety specialists search out causes and suggest corrective actions. Loss prevention specialists are employed by insurance companies to evaluate customer facilities and recommend possible safety improvements. Occupational health and safety specialists consult with doctors, engineers, and company managers regarding their health and safety programs. They document findings and accidents for the business or for legal proceedings. Occupational health and safety specialists have a variety of tasks, dependent upon the types of potential hazards, workplace setting, and industry. For example, the use and storage of hazardous waste and groundwater contamination are addressed by environmental protection officers. Reviewing furniture and equipment design to enhance employee comfort, safety, and efficiency is done by ergonomists. Health physicists are concerned with safe radiation and radioactive material use. Industrial hygienists look for evidence of asbestos, pesticides, lead, chemicals or infectious diseases.

  • Occupational health and safety specialists work in business offices, mines, and manufacturing plants. They may be required to travel as part of their job. Risks include exposure to the same dangers faced by the employees. Most work a standard 40 hour work week. Good oral and written communication skills are necessary. Specialists should also be detail oriented and well organized.
  • While some occupation health and safety jobs with considerable responsibility may require an advanced degree, nearly all require a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety, or in a related area, such as chemistry or biology. Formal education combines classroom studies with on-the-job training. High school students who would like to pursue this career should take chemistry, physics, biology, math and English classes to prepare themselves for college. The university or college curriculum is composed of coursework in ergonomics, radiation science, risk communications, hazardous material management and control, and respiratory protection.
  • While being credentialed is voluntary, most employers favor it. A number of organizations offer credentialing based upon specialty. The American Board of Health Physicists, the American Indoor Air Quality Council, the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, and the Board of Certified Safety Professionals are credentialing bodies; each has its own set of requirements. In most cases, applicants who have completed a degree and gained work experience either in school, an internship program, or on-the-job are allowed to sit for the credentialing examination. Periodic recertification is required, which typically involves ongoing education.
  • Advancement for federal government-employed occupational health and safety specialists involves moving up to a full-performance level. Beyond this, career advancement might take the form of a supervisory position. Specialists working for the private sector or for local or state governments who have sufficient work experience, a broad background, and understand a range of business function are more likely to be promoted. Many occupational health and safety specialists are members of professional groups. These groups offer continuing education workshops, professional journals, conferences, and networking opportunities. Senior roles generally require an advanced degree in addition to significant work experience.
  • Forty-one percent of all occupational health and safety specialists work for some type of government agency. Many of these are as inspectors for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, ensuring Department of Labor rules are followed. Specialists outside of government employ might work for a private company, or be a contract worker. Hospitals, manufacturers, schools, mines and quarries, construction and oil, and gas companies all use the services of occupational health and safety specialists.
  • The median annual income for occupational health and safety specialists is around $63,000. Those in the midrange earn between $48,000 and $78,000. The lowest 10% in terms of pay earn less than $36,000, while those at the high end earn close to $95,000.