Career Guide for Occupational Health and Safety Specialists

Occupational health and safety specialists help keep workers and the general public safe from hazards. They inspect workplaces, enforce safety rules, and design programs to control disease or injury.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as an occupational health and safety specialist.

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Summary

  • About 41 percent of occupational health and safety specialists work in Federal, State, and local government agencies that enforce rules on safety, health, and the environment.
  • Most jobs require a bachelor’s degree in occupational health, safety, or a related field; some require advanced degrees.
  • Projected average employment growth reflects a balance of continuing public demand for a safe and healthy work environment against the desire for smaller government and fewer regulations.
  • Individuals with a well-rounded breadth of knowledge in more than one health and safety specialty will have the best job prospects.

Working as an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

Occupational health and safety specialists, also known as safety and health professionals or occupational health and safety inspectors, help prevent harm to workers, property, the environment, and the general public. For example, they may design safe work spaces, inspect machines, or test air quality. In addition to making workers safer, specialists aim to increase worker productivity by reducing absenteeism and equipment downtime—and to save money by lowering insurance premiums and workers’ compensation payments, and preventing government fines. Specialists working for governments conduct safety inspections and impose fines. Specialists often work with occupational health and safety technicians to ensure work place safety.

Occupational health and safety specialists analyze work environments and design programs to control, eliminate, and prevent disease or injury. They look for chemical, physical, radiological, and biological hazards. They also work to make more equipment ergonomic—designed to promote proper body positioning, increase worker comfort, and decrease fatigue. Specialists may conduct inspections and inform an organization’s management of areas not in compliance with State and Federal laws or employer policies. They also advise management on the cost and effectiveness of safety and health programs. Some provide training on new regulations and policies or on how to recognize hazards.

Some specialists develop methods to predict hazards from historical data and other information sources. They use these methods and their own knowledge and experience to evaluate current equipment, products, facilities, or processes and those planned for future use. For example, they might uncover patterns in injury data that show that many injuries are caused by a specific type of system failure, human error, or weakness in procedures. They evaluate the probability and severity of accidents and identify where controls need to be implemented to reduce or eliminate risk. If a new program or practice is required, they propose it to management and monitor results if it is implemented. Specialists may also conduct safety training. Training sessions might show how to recognize hazards, for example, or explain new regulations, production processes, and safe work methods. If an injury or illness occurs, occupational health and safety specialists help investigate, studying its causes and recommending remedial action. Some occupational health and safety specialists help workers to return to work after accidents and injuries.

Some specialists, often called loss prevention specialists, work for insurance companies, inspecting the facilities that they insure and suggesting and helping to implement improvements.

Occupational health and safety specialists frequently communicate with management about the status of health and safety programs. They also might consult with engineers or physicians.

Specialists monitor safety measurements in order to advise management of safety performance to correct existing safety hazards and to avoid future hazards; they write reports, including accident reports, and enter information on Occupational Safety and Health Administration recordkeeping forms. They also may prepare documents used in legal proceedings and give testimony in court. Those who develop expertise in specific areas may develop occupational health and safety systems, including policies, procedures, and manuals. Some specialists plan budgets needed to implement programs that help achieve safe work practices.

The responsibilities of occupational health and safety specialists vary by industry, workplace, and types of hazards affecting employees.Environmental protection officers evaluate and coordinate the storage and handling of hazardous waste, the cleanup of contaminated soil or water, or other activities that affect the environment. Ergonomists consider the design of industrial, office, and other equipment to maximize worker comfort, safety, and productivity. Health physicists work in places that use radiation and radioactive material, helping to protect people and the environment from hazardous radiation exposure. Industrial hygienists examine the workplace for health hazards, such as exposure to lead, asbestos, noise, pesticides, or communicable diseases.

Work environment. Occupational health and safety specialists work in a variety of settings such as offices, factories, and mines. Their jobs often involve considerable fieldwork and travel.

Occupational health and safety specialists may be exposed to many of the same strenuous, dangerous, or stressful conditions faced by industrial employees. The majority of occupational health and safety specialist work the typical 40 hour week. Some specialists may work over-time, and often irregular, hours.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most jobs require a bachelor’s degree in occupational health, safety, or a related field; some require advanced degrees. All specialists are trained in the applicable laws or inspection procedures through some combination of classroom and on-the-job training.

Education and training. Most employers require occupational health and safety specialists to have a bachelor’s degree in occupational health, safety, or a related field, such as engineering, biology, or chemistry. For some positions, a master’s degree in industrial hygiene, health physics, or a related subject is required. High school students interested in enrolling in a college program should complete courses in English, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics. College courses may include radiation science, hazardous material management and control, risk communications, principles of ergonomics, and respiratory protection. Course work will vary depending on the degree pursued. For example, course requirements for students seeking a degree in industrial hygiene will differ from course requirements for health physics degree seekers.

In order to become credentialed, most accrediting bodies require that specialists have attended either a regional or nationally accredited educational institution. Work experience is important in this occupation; it is typically beneficial for prospective students to select an education program that offers opportunities to complete internships.

All occupational health and safety specialists are trained in the applicable laws or inspection procedures through some combination of classroom and on-the-job training.

Certification and other qualifications. Credentialing is voluntary, although many employers encourage it. Credentialing is available through several organizations depending on the specialists’ field of work. Organizations credentialing health and safety professionals include 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.

Requirements for credentials vary. Most require specific education and experience in order to be eligible to sit for the certification exam. Once certified, specialists are usually required to complete periodic continuing education for recertification. For information on credentials offered and requirements contact the credentialing organization.

People interested in this occupation should be responsible and enjoy detailed work. Occupational health and safety specialists also should be able to communicate well. Work experience as an occupational health and safety professional may also be a prerequisite for many positions.

Advancement. Occupational health and safety specialists who work for the Federal Government advance through their career ladder to a specified full-performance level if their work is satisfactory. For positions above this level, usually supervisory positions, advancement is competitive and based on agency needs and individual merit. Advancement opportunities in State and local governments and the private sector are often similar to those in the Federal Government.

Specialists with broad education and experience and those who are well versed in numerous business functions usually have the best advancement opportunities. One way to keep up with current professional developments is to join a professional membership society. These organizations offer journals, continuing education courses, and conferences, which provide learning and networking opportunities and can help workers and students to advance.

Typically an advanced degree and substantial work experience are needed to compete for leadership or senior roles

Employment as an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

Occupational health and safety specialists held about 55,800 jobs in 2008. While the majority of jobs were spread throughout the private sector; about 41 percent of specialists worked for Federal, State, and local government agencies.

Within the Federal Government, most jobs are as Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors, who enforce U.S. Department of Labor regulations and impose fines. Within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health hires occupational health and safety specialists to offer companies help in evaluating safety without the risk of fines. Most large government agencies also employ occupational health and safety specialists who work to protect agency employees.

Most private companies either employ their own occupational health and safety workers or contract with them. Most contract work is done through consulting companies, but some specialists are self-employed.

In addition to working for governments, occupational health and safety specialists were employed in manufacturing firms; hospitals; educational services; scientific and technical consulting services; mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction, and construction.

Job Outlook

Average employment growth is expected; additional opportunities will arise from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. Individuals with a well-rounded breadth of knowledge in more than one health and safety specialty will have the best job prospects.

Employment change. Employment of occupational health and safety specialists is expected to increase 11 percent during the 2008-18 decade, about as fast as the average for all occupations, reflecting a balance of continuing public demand for a safe and healthy work environment against the desire for fewer government regulations.

More specialists will be needed to cope with technological advances in safety equipment and threats, changing regulations, and increasing public expectations. In private industry, employment growth will reflect continuing self-enforcement of government and company regulations and policies.

Insurance and worker’s compensation costs have become a financial concern for many employers and insurance companies. As a result, job growth should be good for those specializing in loss prevention, especially in construction safety and in ergonomics.

Growth for occupational health and safety specialists may be hampered by the number of manufacturing and other industry firms offshoring their operations. In addition, the number of workers who telecommute is increasing. Since occupational health and safety specialists do not have access to home offices, their ability to ensure health and safety of workers in home offices is limited.

Job prospects. In addition to job openings from growth, job openings will arise from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations, retire, or leave for other reasons.

As the lines continue to blur between specific health and safety specialties like industrial hygiene, health physics, and loss prevention, individuals with a well-rounded breadth of knowledge in more than one health and safety specialty will have the best job prospects.

Employment of occupational health and safety specialists in the private sector is somewhat affected by general economic fluctuations. Federal, State, and local governments provide considerable job security; these workers are less likely to be affected by changes in the economy.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
Occupational health and safety specialists 29-9011 55,800 62,000 6,200 11
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Occupational Health and Safety Specialists

Median annual wages of occupational health and safety specialists were $62,250 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $47,490 and $77,880. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $35,870, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $93,620. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of occupational health and safety specialists in May 2008 were:

Federal Executive Branch $73,180
General medical and surgical hospitals 63,910
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 57,600
Local government 56,300
State government 55,600

Most occupational health and safety specialists work in large private firms or for Federal, State, and local governments, most of which generally offer benefits more generous than those offered by smaller firms.

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