Occupational health and safety specialists analyze many types of work environments and work procedures. Specialists inspect workplaces for adherence to regulations on safety, health, and the environment. They also design programs to prevent disease or injury to workers and damage to the environment.

Duties

Occupational health and safety specialists typically do the following:

  • Identify hazards in the workplace
  • Collect samples of potentially toxic materials for analysis
  • Inspect and evaluate workplace environments, equipment, and practices for compliance with corporate and government health and safety standards and regulations
  • Design and implement workplace processes and procedures that help protect workers from potentially hazardous work conditions
  • Investigate accidents and incidents to identify their causes and to determine how they might be prevented in the future
  • Conduct training on a variety of topics such as emergency preparedness

Occupational health and safety specialists examine lighting, equipment, ventilation, and other conditions and materials in the workplace that could affect employee health, safety, comfort, and performance. Specialists seek to increase worker productivity by reducing absenteeism and equipment downtime. They also seek to save money by lowering insurance premiums and workers’ compensation payments and by preventing government fines.

Some specialists develop and conduct employee safety and training programs. These programs cover a range of topics, such as how to use safety equipment correctly and how to respond in an emergency.

In addition to protecting workers, specialists also work to prevent harm to property, the environment, and the public by inspecting workplaces for chemical, physical, radiological, and biological hazards. Specialists who work for governments conduct safety inspections and can impose fines.

Occupational health and safety specialists work with engineers and physicians to control or fix potentially hazardous conditions or equipment. They also work closely with occupational health and safety technicians to collect and analyze data in the workplace. 

The tasks of occupational health and safety specialists vary by industry, workplace, and types of hazards affecting employees. The following are examples of types of occupational health and safety specialists:

Ergonomists consider the design of industrial, office, and other equipment to maximize workers' comfort, safety, and productivity.

Health physicists work in locations that use radiation and radioactive material. They help to protect people and the environment from hazardous radiation exposure that may be caused by medical treatments or come from nuclear plants, among other sources.

Industrial or occupational hygienists identify workplace health hazards, such as lead, asbestos, noise, pesticides, and communicable diseases.

Work Environment

Occupational health and safety specialists held about 62,900 jobs in 2012. They work in a variety of settings, such as offices, factories, and mines. Their jobs often involve considerable fieldwork and travel.

About 32 percent of occupational health and safety specialists worked for federal, state, and local governments in 2012. In the federal government, specialists are employed by various agencies, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Most large government agencies employ specialists to protect agency employees. In addition to working for governments, occupational health and safety specialists worked in management, scientific, and technical consulting services; education services; hospitals; and manufacturing. 

Occupational health and safety specialists may be exposed to strenuous, dangerous, or stressful conditions. Specialists use gloves, helmets, respirators, and other personal protective and safety equipment to minimize illness and injury.

Work Schedules

Most occupational health and safety specialists work full time. Some specialists may work weekends or irregular hours in emergency situations.

Education and Training

Occupational health and safety specialists typically need a bachelor’s degree. Specialists usually receive on-the-job training in inspection procedures and regulations.

Education

Occupational health and safety specialists typically need a bachelor’s degree in occupational health, safety, or a related scientific or technical field, such as engineering, biology, or chemistry. For some positions, a master’s degree is required in industrial hygiene, health physics, or a related subject.

Typical courses include radiation science, hazardous material management and control, risk communications, and respiratory protection. These courses may vary, depending on the specialty in which a student wants to work. For example, courses in health physics focus on topics that differ from those in industrial hygiene.

Internships are not required, but employers may prefer to hire candidates who have participated in one.

High school students interested in becoming occupational health and safety specialists should take courses in English, math, chemistry, biology, and physics.

Training

Although occupational health and safety specialists learn standard laws and procedures in their formal education, they also need some on-the-job training for specific work environments. For example, a specialist who will inspect offices needs different on-the-job training than a specialist inspecting factories.

Important Qualities

Ability to use technology. Occupational health and safety specialists must be able to use advanced technology. They often work with complex testing equipment.

Communication skills. Occupational health and safety specialists must be able to communicate safety instructions and concerns to employees and managers. They need to be able to work with technicians to collect and test samples of possible hazards, such as dust or vapors, in the workplace.

Detail oriented. Occupational health and safety specialists must pay attention to details. They need to recognize and adhere to specific safety standards and government regulations.

Physical stamina. Occupational health and safety specialists must be able to stand for long periods and be able to travel regularly. Some specialists work in environments that can be uncomfortable, such as tunnels or mines.

Problem-solving skills. Occupational health and safety specialists must be able to solve problems. They need to be able to find solutions to unsafe working conditions and environmental concerns in the workplace.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Although certification is voluntary, many employers encourage it. Certification is available through several organizations, depending on the field in which the specialists work. Specialists must have graduated from an accredited educational program and have work experience to be eligible to take most certification exams. To keep their certification, specialists are usually required to complete periodic continuing education.

Pay

The median annual wage for occupational health and safety specialists was $66,790 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $40,080, and the top 10 percent earned more than $97,380.

Most occupational health and safety specialists work full time. Some specialists may work weekends or irregular hours in emergency situations.

Job Outlook

Employment of occupational health and safety specialists is projected to grow 7 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations.

Specialists will be needed to work in a wide variety of industries to ensure that employers are adhering to both existing and new regulations. For example, technological advances that allow manufacturing workers to use new machinery will require specialists to create and enforce procedures to ensure safe use of the machinery.

The increased adoption of nuclear power as a source of energy may lead to job growth for specialists in that field. These specialists will be needed to maintain the safety of both the powerplant workers and the surrounding environment.

In addition, specialists will be necessary because insurance and workers’ compensation costs have become a concern for many employers and insurance companies. An aging population is remaining in the workforce longer than past generations, and older workers usually have a greater proportion of workers’ compensation claims.

Job Prospects

Despite slower than average employment growth, job opportunities for individuals with advanced degrees are expected to be good. Candidates with certification may enjoy more job opportunities. In addition, a large number of currently practicing occupational health and safety specialists are expected to retire over the coming decade, creating opportunities for new specialists.

For More Information

For more information about industrial hygienists, visit

American Industrial Hygiene Association

For more information about credentialing in industrial hygiene, visit

American Board of Industrial Hygiene

AIHA Registry Programs

For more information about occupations in safety, a list of safety and related academic programs, and credentialing, visit

Board of Certified Safety Professionals

For more information about health physicists, visit

Health Physics Society

For more information about occupational health and safety, visit

U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

For job vacancies within the federal government, visit

USAJOBS

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.