How to Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

An occupational health and safety specialist conducts a site visit.

Every year, about 6,000 workers die from accidents on the job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Every day, more than 16 employees suffer workplace injuries. To prevent accidents and keep job sites safe, organizations need occupational health and safety experts.

Occupational health and safety specialists identify, prevent, and control health and safety hazards in the workplace, including:

  • Chemical and biological hazards
  • Radiation exposure
  • Excessive noise
  • Lack of ergonomic equipment
  • Dangerous workflow processes

They develop processes to ensure safe and healthy work environments — especially as workplaces strive for automation and efficiency. Read ahead to learn more about occupational health and safety jobs and how to become an occupational health and safety specialist.

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Job Description

Occupational health and safety specialists advocate for workers’ safety in many settings, including offices and factories. They devise innovative safety programs to keep workers healthy while at their jobs.

All organizations confronting potentially dangerous work conditions rely on the expertise of occupational health and safety specialists. Professionals in this field work on a wide range of problems, including:

  • Preventing health problems caused by biological and chemical toxins
  • Inspecting equipment and production processes for safety
  • Conducting routine safety inspections at job sites
  • Advising companies on purchasing ergonomically designed equipment
  • Evaluating how well companies adhere to laws, regulations, and policies designed to protect workers

Technicians vs. Specialists in Occupational Health and Safety

Similar yet distinct from the occupational health and safety specialist job is that of the occupational health and safety technician. The roles differ in a few key ways.

Technician Key Responsibilities

Occupational health and safety technicians will:

  • Test for workplace hazards
  • Calibrate equipment to collect and analyze data samples
  • Document and maintain records related to workplace safety
  • Supply and maintain personal protective equipment and safety equipment
  • Prepare and review safety specifications to ensure they are up to code

Specialist Key Responsibilities

Occupational health and safety specialists’ duties go above and beyond that of technicians to:

  • Provide recommendations to organizations that help to protect workers
  • Order the suspension of activities that pose safety or health threats
  • Investigate workplace accidents
  • Determine causes of accidents and propose interventions to prevent future accidents
  • Evaluate workplace equipment, practices, and environments to ensure compliance with government regulations
  • Collaborate with physicians, engineers, and leaders to control hazardous conditions

What does an occupational health and safety specialist do? In effect, they administer recommendations to organizations for safety technicians and other employees to execute and follow.

Where Do Health and Safety Specialists Work?

Some jobs are just plain dangerous. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites logging, fishing, roofing, refuse collecting, and farming as some of the most deadly. Additionally, welding, mining, roof bolting, aircraft cargo handling, and telecommunications line repairing lead to some of the highest injury rates in the U.S.

Occupational health and safety specialists work to safeguard employees in those high-risk settings and many others.

In 2019, 100,500 people worked as occupational health and safety specialists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most occupational and health safety specialists worked in the following industries:

  • Government (22 percent)
  • Manufacturing (17 percent)
  • Construction (11 percent)
  • Consulting services for management, scientific, and technical jobs (6 percent)
  • Hospitals (4 percent)

Specialists in occupational health and safety often need to travel for work. Their fieldwork may expose them to stressful, strenuous, and dangerous conditions.

Sometimes their goals are proactive and preventive — helping a new work site set up its safety procedures, for example. Other times, occupational health and safety specialists arrive after an accident. Occupational health and safety specialists also respond in person to workplace incidents, including injuries and deaths, analyzing what went wrong and how to prevent accidents from occurring in the future.

The Skills of an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

Occupational health and safety specialists develop a broad set of business skills to provide recommendations for improving health and safety.

Critical Thinking

They need to analyze and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of existing safety structures. They also must apply logic and reasoning to complex problems and processes in workplace environments.

Active Listening

They must give full attention to insights and feedback from engineers, managers, and leaders. After an accident, occupational health and safety specialists may need to conduct interviews with employees to understand how safety measures failed or were not followed properly.

Inductive Reasoning

They must be capable of surveying existing work sites, finding relationships among seemingly unrelated events, and drawing conclusions from evidence.

Mechanical Operation

They must possess extensive technical skills to operate complex tools. Occupational health and safety specialists may need to operate specialized machinery to conduct their investigations. In the process of an investigation, they may need to collect vapors, dust, chemicals, and byproducts for testing.

Oral Communication

They must be able to convey information effectively when speaking to audiences with different backgrounds and expertise (for example, industrial engineers and CEOs). Occupational health and safety specialists must convey safety instructions clearly and directly.

Written Communication

Occupational health and safety specialists must have the skills to write technical documents outlining the results of their investigations. That means, they may need to:

  • Present and contextualize data
  • Cite and explain local, state, and federal laws and regulations
  • Propose data-driven solutions to problems
  • Write or revise safety proposal guidelines

Technical Reading

They must be able to read and understand technical documents, including those describing laws and policies that relate to health and safety requirements. Occupational health and safety specialists need to keep up to date with emerging regulations and updates in local, state, and federal guidance.

Physical Endurance

They must be able to wedge themselves into crawl spaces, climb tall structures, operate complex machinery, and endure long hours when doing fieldwork and physical investigations.

To sum up, an occupational health and safety specialist must become an expert investigator, analyst, and communicator to help organizations prevent workplace injuries.

How to Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

Becoming an occupational health and safety specialist requires getting the right education. Occupational health and safety specialists need at least a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety or in a related scientific or technical field (engineering, biology, or chemistry, for example).

Some occupational health and safety jobs require a master’s degree in industrial hygiene, health physics, or a related subject.

Coursework

Coursework for future occupational health and safety specialists often includes courses like the following:

  • Occupational Safety Management
  • Technical Writing and Communications
  • Accident Prevention
  • Principles of Biostatistics
  • Survey of Environmental Health
  • Population Behavior and Environmental Public Health
  • Disaster and Emergency Communication
  • Physical Agents and Ergonomic Hazards in the Workplace
  • Principles of Industrial Hygiene
  • Industrial Ventilation and Hazard Control
  • Health and Safety Training and Evaluation
  • Air Sampling and Analysis
  • Health Risk Assessment

Professional Certification

Most employers encourage certifications for occupational and health safety specialists. Certifications are available through many organizations, depending upon the specialist’s field. Occupational safety and health specialists can earn professional certifications, such as:

  • Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene
  • Associate Safety Professional (ASP)

The Board of Certified Safety Professionals offers the following certifications:

  • Certified Safety Professional (CSP)
  • Construction Health and Safety Technician (CHST)
  • Occupational Health and Safety Technologist (OHST)

Training

On-the-job training is a must for occupational health and safety technicians. Through such training, they learn about specific laws and inspection procedures, and learn to conduct tests and recognize hazards. The training period varies with the technician’s level of education, experience, and specialty.

Students in bachelor’s degree programs and master’s degree programs should be encouraged to complete internships. Cooperative programs with supervised practice provide hands-on experience that will help students understand what an occupational health and safety specialist does day to day.

Most employers prefer to hire occupational health and safety specialists with at least five years of experience. Professionals can gain professional training hours by working in roles such as the following:

  • Building inspector
  • Safety engineer
  • Occupational health and safety technician
  • Occupational health and safety specialists should also receive ongoing training in policy and laws related to their subfield.

Education Requirements for Technicians vs. Specialists

A big difference between the base requirements for employment as an occupational health and safety technician and a specialist is the level of education.

Technician Education

Most technicians have a higher education degree. Information from O-Net’s — a data source for occupational information and labor market research — broke down current technicians’ degrees as follows:

  • Associate degrees: 15 percent
  • Bachelor’s degrees: 60 percent
  • Master’s degrees: 15 percent

Specialist Education

Specialists need more education than technicians, as reflected by the percentage of specialists with advanced education beyond a four-year degree. The same O-Net survey data showed the following about specialists’ degrees:

  • Postsecondary certificates: 5 percent
  • Bachelor’s degrees: 73 percent
  • Master’s degrees: 18 percent

Safety in Action: How a Farm in Louisiana Earned Safety and Health Recognition

To illustrate the work of an occupational health and safety specialist, consider the success story of Oak River Farms, Inc., in Monterey, Louisiana.

Oak River Farms is a 60-employee agribusiness that specializes in farming, land management, and on-site grain storage. They sought help from a local consulting company to conduct a safety and health assessment. Occupational health and safety specialists identified a few areas of concern for this new company:

  • Improperly maintained fire extinguishers
  • Unlabeled electrical panels and electrical knockouts that needed repair
  • Unsafe storage of hazardous materials (oxygen and acetylene cylinders stored within 20 feet of each other)
  • Dangerous compressed air distribution systems (distributed through incompatible polyvinyl chloride [PVC] tubing)

Thankfully, the company took their safety seriously. They listened to the evaluation and critiques from occupational health and safety specialists and corrected their mistakes.

In addition to correcting the required safety hazards, Oak River Farms also listened to their consultant’s “best practice” recommendations. They went above and beyond what was required and implemented these recommendations swiftly. These additional recommendations included best practices such as:

  • Updating detailed grain handling procedures
  • Enhancing trainings for employees to include robust programming like defensive driving, grain bin rescue, and first aid/CPR/AED certification
  • Purchasing rescue equipment

Importantly, the recommendations from the consultation visit were shared across all farming locations, which ensured consistent practices across the organization.

The impact? Following the requirements and recommendations provided by the occupational health and safety specialists resulted in reduced workplace injuries and worker compensation costs. Oak River Farms had a much lower injury rate than the agricultural industry average.

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Salary

Occupational health and safety is growing as a field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of jobs for occupational health and safety specialists and technicians (combined) will increase 4 percent between now and 2029. This is about the same as the average expected growth for all occupations.

Occupational health and safety specialists had a median annual salary of $76,340 as of May 2020. The median annual wage for technicians in the same field was slightly less at $53,340 per year.

New and existing regulations mean more jobs for specialists and technicians in a wide variety of industries: health care, manufacturing, farming, and construction, to name a few.

Start a Meaningful Career in Occupational Health and Safety

Are you excited to learn more about a career in occupational health and safety? Do you think you have what it takes to conduct safety investigations, analyze occupational hazards, and create solutions to health and safety problems?

Discover Tulane University’s Online Master of Science in Public Health in Industrial Hygiene and Master of Public Health in Occupational Health and Safety Management. These programs prepare students with the knowledge and skills they need to identify workplace hazards, anticipate workplace risks, manage occupational exposures, and succeed in this growing field.

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Sources

ExploreHealthCareers.org, Occupational Health and Safety Expert

Insider, “The 34 Deadliest Jobs in America”

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Oak River Farms Becomes the First Farm in Louisiana to Earn an OSHA SHARP Award ​​ Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Success Stories

O-Net, Summary Report for: Occupational Health and Safety Specialists

O-Net, Summary Report for: Occupational Health and Safety Technicians

Truity, Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: Occupational Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians