Occupational safety and health workers are responsible for the prevention of work-related accidents and diseases, injuries from unsafe products and practices, property losses from accidents and fires, and adverse effects of industrial processes on the environment. There are approximately 40,000 occupational safety specialists and 12,000 health and safety technicians employed in the United States.
Occupational Safety and Health Worker Career History
For thousands of years, people thought that accidents and illnesses just happened, or they blamed such unfortunate occurrences on fate, the wrath of the gods, or evil forces. Very little was done to prevent accidents systematically other than to wear charms, offer sacrifices, or engage in other rituals or behaviors thought to be preventive. At the same time, the slave trade reinforced the concept that certain workers’ lives were expendable. The builders of the great ancient structures, such as the pyramids of Egypt, gave no thought to the well-being of their human inventory other than giving them enough food so that they were strong enough to work.
Throughout history many types of workers have been compelled to accept their lot in life. Even in more modern times, the early history of the industrial revolution demonstrated that workers were considered less important than the machines they operated or the output of a factory or mine. Little relationship was seen between productivity and the safety and health of the workers.
These exploitative practices were eventually halted through the joint efforts of social reform movements, labor unions, and progressive politicians. The rapid growth of technology in the 20th century made it possible to design machinery and equipment with built-in safety mechanisms. As medical research increased our knowledge of the effect of the working environment on health, psychological studies made us aware of the human factors that may lead to accident or illness. Labor unions and the federal government increased the pressure on companies to pay more attention to workplace conditions and the welfare of workers.
Now in the 21st century, we are probably safer at work than in most other places, including the home. Companies of all sizes have instituted practical safety measures and reduced worker hazards by developing new machinery and devising better safeguards. At the same time, they have established work safety rules and safety education programs for their workers. To protect the well-being and productivity of their workers, companies continue to allocate large sums to research and development in this area.
Occupational Safety and Health Worker Job Description
Safety and health workers have a variety of responsibilities, which fall into four basic areas.
First, they identify and evaluate hazardous conditions and practices. They inspect facilities and equipment, conduct accident investigations, analyze work procedures, study building layouts, and consult with workers who are exposed to hazardous conditions.
Second, safety and health workers develop ways to control hazards. They observe, analyze, and solve problems using deductive reasoning and creativity.
Third, safety personnel communicate hazard-control information to workers and management.
Fourth, safety personnel continually measure hazard-control systems and adjust them as needed. Safety employees gather information from accident investigations, inspections, customer or employee complaints, and other sources, such as government agencies and regulations. They may employ such strategies as designing or redesigning equipment and machinery, providing physical safeguards (for example, protective clothing or rock deflectors on lawn mowers), or training workers in the use of safe procedures.
Safety engineers are primarily concerned with preventing accidents. In a large industrial plant, they may develop a safety program that covers several thousand employees. They examine plans for new machinery and equipment to see that all safety precautions have been included and put in place. They determine the weight-bearing capacity of the plant floor. They inspect existing machinery and design, build, and install safeguards where necessary. Many safety engineers work with design engineers to develop safe models of their company’s products and monitor the manufacturing process to make sure the finished product is safe and reliable to use.
If an accident occurs, safety engineers investigate the cause. If the accident is related to a mechanical problem, they use their technical skills to correct it and prevent a recurrence. If it is because of human error, they may educate the particular workers in proper safety procedures and draw up an education program for the entire staff.
Safety engineers who work for trucking companies are known as safety coordinators. They work with both management and drivers to reduce losses due to accidents. They instruct truck-and-trailer drivers in matters pertaining to traffic and safety regulations and care of the equipment. They ride with drivers and patrol highways to detect errors in handling cargo and driving the vehicle. They also watch for any violations of company regulations and observe the conditions of the vehicles and the roads. They investigate accidents and recommend measures to improve safety records and lengthen the life of equipment.
Occupational safety and health inspectors work for government and regulatory agencies. They visit workplaces to detect unsafe machinery and equipment or to check for unhealthy working conditions. They discuss their findings with the employer or plant manager and request immediate correction of violations in accordance with federal, state, and local government standards and regulations.
In the mining industry, mining inspectors inspect underground and open-pit mines to ensure compliance with health and safety laws. They check timber supports, electrical and mechanical equipment, storage of explosives, and other possible hazards. They test the air for toxic or explosive gas or dust. They may also design safety devices and protective equipment for mine workers, lead rescue activities in the event of an emergency, and instruct mine workers in safety and first-aid procedures.
The light, heat, and power industry employs safety engineers, known as safety inspectors, to ensure the safety of the workers who construct and maintain overhead and underground power lines. Safety inspectors check safety belts, ladders, ropes, and tools; observe crews at work to make sure they use goggles, rubber gloves, and other safety devices; and examine the condition of tunnels and ditches. They investigate accidents, devise preventive measures, and instruct workers in safety matters.
Fire protection engineers have different tasks depending on where they work. In general, their job is to safeguard life and property against fire, explosion, and related hazards. Those employed by design and consulting firms work with architects and other engineers to build fire safety into new buildings. They study buildings before and after completion for such factors as fire resistance, the use and contents of the buildings, water supplies, and entrance and exit facilities. Fire protection engineers who work for manufacturers of fire equipment design alarm systems, fire-detection mechanisms, and fire-extinguishing devices and systems. They also investigate causes of accidental fires and may organize and train personnel to carry out fire-protection programs.
Fire prevention research engineers conduct research to determine the causes of fires and methods for preventing them. They study such problems as fires in high-rise buildings, and they test fire retardants and the fire safety of building materials. The results of such research are then used by fire protection engineers in the field. Fire prevention research engineers also prepare educational materials on fire prevention for insurance companies.
Fire marshals supervise and coordinate the activities of the firefighters in large industrial establishments such as refineries and auto plants. They also inspect equipment such as sprinklers and extinguishers; inspect the premises for combustion hazards and violations of fire ordinances; conduct fire drills; and direct fire-fighting and rescue activities in case of emergencies.
While safety and fire prevention engineers work to prevent accidents, industrial hygienists are concerned with the health of the employees in the workplace. They collect and analyze samples of dust, gases, vapors, and other potentially toxic material; investigate the adequacy of ventilation, exhaust equipment, lighting, and other conditions that may affect employee health, comfort, or efficiency; evaluate workers’ exposure to radiation and to noise; and recommend ways of controlling or eliminating such hazards. These hygienists work at the job site.
Other industrial hygienists work in the private laboratories of insurance, industrial, or consulting companies, where they analyze air samples, research health equipment, or investigate the effects of chemicals. Health physicists are specialists in radiation. Still other industrial hygienists specialize in the problems of air and water pollution.
Environmental safety and health workers prevent hazards to the environment and are concerned with pollution control, energy efficiency, recycling, waste disposal, and compliance with the government’s Environmental Protection Agency requirements.
Loss-control and occupational health consultants are safety inspectors hired by property-liability insurance companies to perform services for their clients. They inspect insured properties and evaluate the physical conditions, safety practices, and hazardous situations that may exist; determine whether the client is an acceptable risk; calculate the amount of the insurance premium; and develop and monitor a program to eliminate or reduce all hazards. They also help set up health programs and medical services and train safety personnel.
Occupational Safety and Health Worker Career Requirements
If you are interested in becoming a occupational safety and health worker, you will need to acquire a bachelor’s degree at the minimum. Therefore, while you are in high school, take a college preparatory course of study. Subjects that you should concentrate on include mathematics and sciences. Especially important are algebra, trigonometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics. Because this work is so involved with people and their reactions to environments, you may also want to take psychology courses. Finally, because part of your work will include writing reports, giving presentations, and explaining changes to others, you will need to develop both your oral and written communication skills. To do this, take English classes throughout your high school years. If your school offers speech classes, you may want to take these as well.
For your postsecondary education, you should plan on getting a bachelor’s degree in engineering or in one of the physical or biological sciences. Employers usually prefer to hire a candidate with a bachelor’s or master’s degree that is specifically related to occupational safety and health, such as safety engineering or management, industrial hygiene, fire-protection engineering, public health, or health physics. Degrees in chemical or mechanical engineering are also very desirable. According to the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), more than 125 colleges and universities offer degrees in safety management, occupational safety, environmental protection, or a related field. Visit the Member and Chapter Services Department section of the ASSE’s Web site (http://www.asse.org/) for a list of schools. In addition to the schools offering safety degrees, some engineering schools offer a safety specialty within their traditional engineering degree programs. Many schools with safety-degree programs are having difficulty accommodating the growing interest in an occupational safety education and have long waiting lists of students. These schools, however, have no trouble placing their graduates in jobs. The ASSE and some private foundations offer scholarships.
Employers are increasingly interested in hiring people who have a knowledge of the three major categories in occupational safety and health: safety, industrial hygiene, and environmental management. Therefore, you should try to combine your studies; for example, if you major in safety, then you should minor in environmental affairs, or vice versa.
Workers in this field must keep abreast of new and changing trends and technologies. For this reason, many insurance companies provide training seminars and correspondence courses for the members of their staff. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers courses on topics such as occupational injury investigation and radiological health hazards. The ASSE, the National Safety Council, and other groups also provide continuing professional education for safety engineers.
In some cases you may be able to find employment with only a two-year degree, working as a safety and health technician. To advance in the field, however, you will need to complete further education.
Certification or Licensing
Certification is offered by a number of professional organizations. Requirements typically include graduation from an accredited program, a certain amount of work experience, and passing a written exam. The Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP) reports that in 2005, more than 90 percent of the employers advertising job openings in the magazine Professional Safety wanted job candidates to have a degree plus experience and more than half required the designation certified safety professional (CSP). In addition to offering the CSP designation, the BCSP also offers certification in three specialty areas: construction safety, ergonomics, and system safety. Other organizations offering certification include the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, the Council on Certification of Health, Environmental, and Safety Technologists, and the National Fire Protection Association.
States require licensure for some occupational safety and health workers, depending on the job they do. For example, professional engineers must be licensed, although exact requirements may vary from state to state. In general, however, requirements include graduation from an accredited program, work experience, and the passing of written exams.
You may need to be in good physical condition to keep up with the physical demands of some of the jobs in this field. To be effective in establishing safety programs and procedures, you must be able to communicate well and motivate others. You must be adaptable and able to work comfortably with people on all levels—from union representatives to supervisors of a welding shop to corporate executives or government bureaucrats.
Exploring Occupational Safety and Health Worker Career
Your science teachers, teachers of technical subjects, and school vocational counselors may offer guidance to useful courses of study and any available work-study programs. Math and science clubs may develop your interest in a safety career; debate teams and drama clubs can help you develop communication skills.
You may be able to interview with and attend lectures by occupational safety and health professionals, giving you an opportunity to ask questions and get an overview of the field. Field trips to an industrial plant or other worksite will also give you an appreciation for the profession.
There are no shortcuts in the educational process, but as you begin to fulfill your academic goals, you may seek part-time and summer jobs that are related to your career objectives. These jobs in turn may lead to permanent positions upon graduation. Part-time and summer jobs in manufacturing plants will give you firsthand experience in observing working conditions and help you become familiar with some of the equipment that is important to safety workers. You may also be able to find safety- or health-related jobs in local hospitals and insurance companies. Student internships are a good way to enter the field. One of the best-known internship programs is run by the Safety Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Another way to study the field is to check out some Web sites, such as those of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (https://www.osha.gov/), Work-Care (http://www.osh.net/), and Safety Link (http://www.safetylink.com/).
Occupational health and safety specialists hold approximately 40,000 jobs and technicians hold about 12,000. The federal government employs 4 percent, state governments employ 18 percent, and local governments employ 19 percent. The remainder work for schools, hospitals, public utilities, consulting firms, and manufacturing firms.
Occupational safety and health workers are employed throughout the country, but they are generally concentrated in urban and industrial centers. According to the BCSP, the fields of manufacturing, insurance, petrochemicals, consulting, and government are the largest employers of workers with the CSP designation. Many of those employed in the safety and health field are safety engineers, fire protection engineers, industrial hygienists, or workers who combine two or more areas. A small number work as engineering or industrial hygiene technicians. Insurance consultants usually have their offices in one city and travel to and from various sites.
College guidance counselors and career services offices are one source of job leads. People intent on entering the occupational safety and health field may contact the ASSE or other professional societies, talk to company recruiters, or apply directly to the personnel or employment offices of appropriate industrial or insurance companies. Safety-industry trade journals and society Web sites are also excellent sources to check for listings of job openings.
Advancement will depend on such factors as a person’s education level, area of specialty, experience, and certifications. Safety and health workers in the insurance industry, for example, may be promoted to department manager of a small branch office, then to a larger branch office, and from there to an executive position in the home office. In industrial firms, safety and health workers can move up to safety and health managers for one or more plants. Some working in the consulting area will have the advancement goal of opening their own consulting firm. Safety and health workers who obtain advanced degrees in areas such as public health or safety studies may go into teaching or move into research.
Because occupational safety and health workers are so involved with businesses and government, many develop an interest in these fields and add to their credentials by getting a master’s in business administration degree or a law degree. They may then go into law, administration, or various aspects of business operations. Technicians with the proper education and experience can advance to professional safety and health positions, with the accompanying increase in prestige and income.
Earnings, naturally, vary based on factors such as the field the safety and health worker is involved in, his or her experience, and the size of the employer. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the median salary of occupational health and safety specialists and technicians was $53,710. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $32,500, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $83,810.
Government workers generally earn less than their counterparts in the private sector. In local government, the median annual earnings of occupational health and safety specialists and technicians were $51,910 in 2005. In state government, workers earned $46,560 a year.
According to the BCSP, salaries for safety workers may range from approximately $25,000 to $100,000 or more. The BCSP also estimates that the average salaries for mid-career professionals with bachelor’s or master’s degrees range from approximately $50,000 to $70,000. Those with certification typically earn higher salaries. The BCSP reports that in 2006, the annual median salary for safety workers with ASP certification was $69,029, and for those with CSP certification the median was $89,901.
Those who work full-time for one company usually receive health benefits and paid vacation. Consultants and self-employed workers choose their own hours and clients, but they do not usually receive benefits, such as insurance or paid vacation time.
Most occupational safety and health workers are based in offices but spend much of their time at worksites, inspecting safety hazards, talking to workers, or taking samples of such things as air, dust, or water. They may travel a great deal, depending on their job specialty and location. For example, safety engineers who work exclusively at one plant may travel only to an occasional seminar or conference, while insurance consultants will spend about half their time away from the office inspecting worksites.
The conditions of inspection sites vary depending on the situation. Safety and health workers may experience unpleasant or dangerous working conditions, such as inspecting mines or livestock-slaughtering procedures. Some factories will be dirty and noisy, while warehouses are usually orderly and office buildings very comfortable. The nature of the work may require a lot of physical activity, such as walking, stooping, bending, and lifting.
Occupational Safety and Health Worker Career Outlook
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the employment of occupational health and safety specialists and technicians is expected to grow about as fast as the average through 2014. Because of wide public support, the economy seldom affects safety jobs, especially in heavy industry where exposure to injury is highest. The expansion of regulatory and compliance programs will increase opportunities in government jobs. In the private sector, employment of safety and health workers is expected to grow because of increasing self-enforcement of government and company regulations. Casualty insurance companies will hire more safety and health workers as small companies request the services of their loss-control and occupational health consultants. Openings will also occur as experienced workers move to other occupations, retire, or are promoted. Employment prospects will be best for college graduates with degrees specifically related to occupational safety or health.
One of the fastest-growing areas of safety work is with robotics. The trend toward automation has created a need for safety professionals who can understand electromechanical systems and make sure they meet safety standards. Another growing area is product safety. As more complicated consumer products are marketed to a public that is increasingly aware of safety issues, safety experts will find more opportunities in this field. Other future hotbeds of employment for qualified safety professionals include construction, petrochemicals, the semiconductor industry, multinational corporations, insurance, and meatpacking.
There is an increasing interest among employers in hiring one expert who fulfills the three functions of safety, industrial hygiene, and environmental management. Other in-demand specialties include risk management/ loss control, ergonomics and human factors engineering, analytical-process safety engineering, construction safety, environmental safety, and fire protection.
For More Information:
- American Society of Safety Engineers
- Board of Certified Safety Professionals
- National Safety Council
- University of Wisconsin-Whitewater