In October 2020, McElroy Manufacturing earned its fourth Safety and Health Recognition Program (SHARP) award. The designation singles out organizations with model workplace safety and health programs. How did the company achieve the honor and two-year exemption from government inspections that accompanied it? With the help of skilled occupational safety consultants, the organization dropped its employee injury rate to zero.
Those inspired by the chance to help organizations create cultures of safety can benefit from learning about the occupational safety consultant role, skills, salary, and job outlook.
Occupational safety consultants provide valuable support to organizations in their efforts to:
- Protect employees from workplace safety hazards
- Comply with state and federal health and safety regulations
Exposed electrical wiring, toxic fumes, deafening noise, repetitive motion — these and other conditions can pose hazards to workers. Organizations have both an ethical and legal obligation to take steps to eliminate or reduce on-the-job health and safety risks.
Occupational safety consultants help organizations fulfill those obligations by carefully studying work environments to identify potential hazards. This involves closely examining procedures, policies, equipment, and even a workspace’s layout to detect anything that may put workers at risk or pose legal liabilities to an organization.
For example, occupational safety consultants may check to see if an organization properly labels and tracks dangerous chemicals according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. Occupational safety consultants may also check to see if all pieces of equipment, such as guillotine cutters, have the mandated protective guards that help prevent accidents.
After identifying problem areas and explaining them in a report, occupational safety consultants offer approaches and options for fixing any safety or health issues. Next, they may help organizations develop and implement strategies that reduce risks and build cultures of safety.
The following responsibilities make up the bulk of what an occupational safety consultant does:
Troubleshooting workplace safety hazards starts with risk assessment. This involves:
- Uncovering risks and hazards
- Determining whom they may affect
- Figuring out where to implement safety measures that can control them
Organizations may need a general risk assessment that broadly examines workplace tasks or activities. Or they may have a specific area of focus in mind. For instance, they may contract an occupational safety consultant to assess potential hazards associated with dangerous substances that are used or produced on-site.
During risk assessments, occupational safety consultants study the history and records of accidents in the workplace to gain insight into existing issues and vulnerable areas. They may also interview workers involved in the accidents. Additionally, occupational safety consultants examine reports of near-miss incidents, close calls in which injuries or damage to property was narrowly avoided.
After identifying risks and hazards, occupational safety consultants find ways to eliminate them. That could involve buying new machinery, redesigning a work environment, or changing work practices. For example, the purchase of a hoist could prevent injuries caused by workers hauling heavy materials.
In some cases, it is not possible to eliminate the risks, so occupational safety consultants can devise ways to minimize them. They could recommend replacing highly toxic chemicals with less toxic chemicals. They could suggest improving ventilation systems to remove noxious fumes more effectively from a work area, or relocating machines to where fewer people come in contact with them.
Other solutions occupational safety consultants may suggest include:
- Placing barriers to separate workers from potential hazards
- Rotating employees’ work tasks so they do not develop injuries from repeated motions
- Clearing workspaces of all unnecessary items to reduce human error
- Color coding tools according to the job they are used for to limit misuse
Occupational safety consultants also help organizations develop safety programs. These programs address the various aspects of safety management including:
- Managing hazards
- Reporting accidents and incidents
- Becoming emergency ready
Safety programs include plans that detail the safety measures and practices for specific activities, taking into consideration governmental regulations. They give employees information about how to handle everything from a spill in the break room to an explosion in a laboratory.
Safety programs’ components include:
- Actions to take in response to various types of safety incidents
- Safe handling techniques and practices
- Appropriate protective gear to use
- Training plans
- Evacuation routes
- Steps for disposing of waste or equipment
The safety program that led to McElroy Manufacturing winning its SHARP award included:
- A system for effectively reporting and tracking near-miss incidents
- Thorough analyses of job hazards
- Refresher training
The company also introduced a lean to safety policy — a method for identifying and reducing waste in processes to lower risks for accidents and sickness. The McElroy Lean to Safety policy gives employees time in their daily schedules to identify work areas that need improvement. Employees then discuss these safety issues in daily meetings, which helps build a thriving safety culture.
Effective training is memorable to employees so that when unexpected health or safety issues arise, they respond with a certain level of assurance.
Occupational safety consultants often assist organizations in managing effective safety training programs. These programs teach employees how to safely perform their jobs. Training sessions also educate workers about the OSHA rules and standards related to their work. This not only helps prevent incidents. It gives workers the information they need to do their jobs efficiently and correctly.
Successful training programs deliver sessions when employees are hired, when aspects of their work assignments change, and on a yearly basis as well. All employees need basic safety training. Some positions may call for additional specialized training. As an example, a forklift operator needs both general safety and forklift use training.
Other types of training include:
- Accident prevention
- Incident response
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) use
- Incident reporting according to OSHA guidelines
Successful occupational safety consultants need the right education and skills. The following steps can help aspiring consultants attain necessary knowledge and competencies.
A bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety, or in a related field such as chemistry, biology, or engineering, can give occupational safety consultants a solid foundation for their positions. The degree can provide important knowledge of scientific principles required to perform risk assessments as well as devise effective safety measures.
The level of expertise demanded of occupational safety consultants often only comes with advanced education. By earning a master’s degree in industrial hygiene, occupational safety consultants strengthen their ability to interpret data about toxicology and epidemiology. They also learn enhanced techniques for developing engineering and administrative controls for hazards in the workplace.
To competently identify hazards, troubleshoot risks, and develop effective safety programs, occupational safety consultants need extensive experience in the field. Hands-on experience helps occupational safety consultants sharpen their skills and gives them a chance to apply classroom learning in real-world situations.
Though not always mandatory, getting a certification in occupational health and safety can benefit occupational safety consultants. Certifications often lend credibility to a consultant, opening the door to additional work opportunities. The American Board of Industrial Hygiene and the Board of Certified Safety Professionals both offer certifications that require work experience and the successful completion of exams.
Occupational safety consultants must possess in-depth knowledge of federal, state, and local safety regulations, alongside an arsenal of strategies for addressing hazards to health and safety. Additionally, their work calls for the following skills:
Many of the tasks an occupational safety consultant performs involve collecting information and analyzing it. When assessing safety risks, determining needed training, or examining organizational records, occupational safety consultants must think critically and problem solve.
Successfully identifying problems and designing potential solutions only goes so far if an occupational safety consultant cannot clearly explain their findings and recommended solutions. Occupational safety consultants need to effectively communicate ideas in simple terms so workers from various backgrounds can understand them. They also need strong verbal skills for writing and presenting reports.
Occupational safety consultants need to build trust and confidence with management and workers to deliver effective training and come to mutual agreements about safety programs. This takes the ability to collaborate, team build, and actively listen.
In May 2020, occupational safety consultants had a median annual salary of $76,340, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Top earners made more than $112,850 a year.
The BLS projects a 4 percent growth rate between 2019 and 2029 for occupational safety consultants jobs. This is in line with the average growth rate forecasted for all occupations.
It is worth noting that the latest BLS reports on occupational safety show that in 2019 more than 1.1 million people were injured on the job. Almost 30 percent of those injuries resulted in the worker missing over a month of work. Additionally, in that same year, 5,333 people died from work-related injuries, a 2 percent increase from the prior year. These numbers highlight the need for occupational safety consultants.
Every year workers become ill, get injured, and even die as result of poor ventilation, spills, chemical exposures, and other hazards. However, an expert occupational safety consultant and other professionals in the field can help organizations prevent these tragic losses.
Discover how Tulane University’s Online MSPH in Industrial Hygiene prepares leaders to nurture cultures of safety in the workplace.