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How to Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

By Ibrahim Okunade

Published:

In the fast-paced world of modern workplaces, the importance of occupational health and safety cannot be overstated. From ensuring employee well-being to complying with stringent regulations, businesses are increasingly recognizing the critical role of occupational health and safety specialists. This article delves into the world of occupational health and safety specialists and how to get started in the field.

Career Summary

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Salary

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Salary

Factors such as the level of education, certifications, years of experience, job responsibilities, and the size and industry of the employing organization can all play a role in determining their compensation. Additionally, geographical location and the demand for occupational health and safety specialists in a particular region can also affect salary levels. Glassdoor gives the salary breakdown of occupational health and safety specialists thus:

  • Entry Salary (US$62k)
  • Median Salary (US$78k)
  • Executive Salary (US$99k)

The median salary for occupational health and safety specialists is higher than the national average income of US citizens, which was approximately $61,900 per year as of 2022, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What does an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist do?

An occupational health and safety specialist is a trained professional responsible for ensuring workplace safety by identifying hazards, conducting risk assessments, implementing safety measures, and promoting a safe work environment for employees. They develop and implement safety programs, conduct training sessions for employees, investigate accidents to determine their causes, and work closely with management to ensure compliance with safety regulations.

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Career Progression

  • Occupational Health and Safety Technician: Entry-level OHS position where individuals support the implementation of safety programs, conduct safety inspections, and assist in hazard identification and risk assessments under the guidance of senior specialists.
  • Safety Coordinator: Takes on more responsibility in managing safety programs, conducting safety training, and assisting in accident investigations.
  • Occupational Health and Safety Specialist: With significant experience and expertise, occupational health and safety specialists may mentor and guide junior colleagues, provide leadership in safety initiatives, and act as subject matter experts in their chosen field of specialization.
  • Safety Manager: Oversees the entire safety program within an organization, leads safety committees, and collaborates with other departments to integrate safety into all aspects of operations.
  • EHS (Environmental, Health, and Safety) Manager: For skilled professionals with a broader skill set in environmental health and safety, the EHS Manager position may be a natural progression. EHS Managers are responsible for an organization’s occupational safety and environmental protection efforts.
  • Safety Consultant: Experienced occupational health and safety specialists may transition to becoming Safety Consultants. In this capacity, they work independently or for consulting firms, providing expert advice and services to multiple clients across various industries.
  • Safety Director or Chief Safety Officer: This is an executive-level role in an organization with significant responsibility for the overall safety strategy and policies of the organization.
Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Career Progression

Pros:

  • Opportunities to work across various industries and organizations.
  • Engaging in continuous learning and staying updated with safety practices.
  • High demand for qualified specialists with opportunities for career growth.
  • Opportunities to collaborate with diverse teams and stakeholders.
  • Job satisfaction from ensuring the health and safety of others.

Cons:

  • Dealing with potentially hazardous or dangerous situations.
  • High levels of responsibility for ensuring safety compliance.
  • Need for continuous vigilance and attention to detail.
  • Managing stress and pressure during emergencies or investigations.
  • Occasional long working hours or on-call responsibilities.

Useful Skills to Have as an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

  • Knowledge of safety regulations and standards.
  • Risk assessment and hazard identification.
  • Accident investigation and root cause analysis.
  • Effective communication and training abilities.
  • Data analysis and reporting.
  • Understanding of ergonomics and workplace design.
  • Emergency response planning and crisis management.
  • Problem-solving and decision-making skills.
  • Attention to detail and strong organizational abilities.

Popular Occupational Health and Safety Specialties

  • Industrial Hygiene Specialist
  • Construction Safety Specialist
  • Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Specialist
  • Safety Management Specialist
  • Ergonomics Specialist
  • Hazardous Materials Specialist
  • Process Safety Specialist
  • Fire Safety Specialist
  • Healthcare Safety Specialist

How to become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist 5 Steps to Career

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step towards becoming a qualified occupational health and safety specialist is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Most employers require occupational health and safety specialists to have a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. There are many different bachelor’s degree programs that can prepare you for this career, such as occupational health and safety, industrial hygiene, environmental health, or public health.

Do I Need a Degree to Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist?

Yes, a bachelor’s degree is needed to become an occupational health and safety specialist. It is the minimum requirement to land a job as an OHS specialist. There are even instances where the minimum requirement is a master’s degree.

Why Is It Important to Get A Degree In Occupational Health and Safety?

A degree program provides in-depth knowledge and understanding of occupational health and safety principles, regulations, and best practices. It equips students with the necessary expertise to address workplace hazards and promote safety effectively.

Further, an occupational health and safety degree serves as a credible qualification that validates a specialist’s competence in the field. It demonstrates to employers that the individual has undergone formal education and training, making them more desirable candidates for job opportunities.

Many employers prefer candidates with formal education in occupational health and safety. Having a degree can open doors to a wider range of job opportunities and career advancement in the field. Some degree programs may incorporate international safety standards and practices, providing a broader understanding of safety issues on a global scale. This knowledge is beneficial for specialists working in multinational organizations or considering international career opportunities.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Degree in Occupational Health and Safety?

The time required to bag a degree in occupational health and safety varies depending on the level of degree the student is pursuing, the type of school, and whether they are attending school on a full-time or part-time basis. Nevertheless, below are some general time frames you can use as a yardstick.

  • Associate’s Degree: An associate’s degree in Occupational Health and Safety or a related field usually takes about two years of full-time study to complete. Some students may choose to attend school part-time, which could extend the time to completion.
  • Bachelor’s Degree: A bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety typically takes around four years of full-time study to complete. This is the most common degree level for those aiming to become occupational health and safety specialists.
  • Master’s Degree: If you decide to pursue a master’s degree in Occupational Health and Safety or a related field, it typically takes 1 to 2 years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Part-time options may be available, but it will take longer to complete.

How Much Does it Cost to Get a Degree in Occupational Health and Safety?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all cost for getting a degree in occupational health and safety. The cost varies based on multiple factors. Factors like the degree level and the school type could potentially affect the cost of your degree program.

According to College Tuition Compare, the tuition and fee for undergraduate degrees in  Occupational Safety and Health Technology range between US$9,753 and US$20,872. Similarly,  the tuition and fee for graduate programs cost between US$11,973 and US$18,723.

This estimate does not include sundry expenses like books and supplies. Thus, the total cost could be potentially higher than the figures given. Students can explore various scholarship and financial aid opportunities available to those studying occupational health and safety technology to offset some of these costs.

Can I Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Through Online Education?

Yes, you can become an occupational health and safety specialist through online education. Many reputable universities and colleges offer fully accredited online occupational health and safety programs or related fields.

When considering the online route,  it’s important to note that some occupational health and safety programs may require hands-on experiences, such as internships or practical training, which might not be entirely feasible in an online format. In such cases, institutions may offer blended programs that combine online coursework with in-person components for practical training.

What are Some Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist?

There are several web resources where you can learn skills and gain knowledge to become an occupational health and safety specialist. These online platforms offer courses, tutorials, articles, and other materials that cover various aspects of occupational health and safety. Here are some recommended web resources:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): The official website of OSHA provides a wealth of information on workplace safety regulations, guidelines, and resources. It offers training materials, e-learning modules, and publications that can help you understand the standards and practices in occupational health and safety.
  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), focuses on research and recommendations for workplace safety and health. Their website offers valuable research papers, publications, and resources related to various industry sectors and hazards.
  • National Safety Council (NSC): NSC offers online training programs covering a wide range of safety topics, including workplace safety. They provide certifications for various safety roles and offer courses suitable for aspiring occupational health and safety specialists.
  • Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM): While not exclusively focused on occupational health and safety, SHRM provides valuable resources on workplace health and safety from a human resources perspective. It covers topics like employee wellness, safety policies, and compliance.

Gain Work Experience

With your bachelor’s degree in the bag, it’s time to gain hands-on experience. For this, there are two paths. You can either look for internship roles or entry-level roles. Either way, working in an organization where you can hone your skills and gain the experience needed to further your career is important.

What Are Internship Opportunities for an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist?

Internships offer valuable opportunities to work under the guidance of experienced professionals and get real-world exposure to occupational health and safety practices. As an up-and-coming occupational health and safety specialist, your internship opportunities include:

  • Manufacturing Companies: Manufacturing industries have a strong focus on safety to prevent workplace accidents and ensure compliance with safety regulations. Internships in manufacturing companies may involve conducting safety inspections, assisting in accident investigations, and participating in safety training programs.
  • Construction Companies: Construction sites present unique safety challenges, making them ideal places for Occupational Health and Safety internships. Interns can learn about hazard assessments, personal protective equipment (PPE) usage, and construction safety regulations.
  • Healthcare Facilities: Hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities prioritize the safety of patients, staff, and visitors. Occupational Health and Safety internships in healthcare settings can involve understanding infection control, ergonomic assessments, and emergency response protocols.
  • Government Agencies: Local, state and federal government agencies often have Occupational Health and Safety departments that oversee safety regulations and enforcement. Interning with these agencies can offer exposure to safety policy development and regulatory compliance.
  • Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Departments: Many large corporations have dedicated EHS departments that focus on workplace safety and environmental protection. Interning with these departments can expose you to comprehensive safety management systems.

What Skills Will I Learn as an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist?

To fully develop into a successful occupational health and safety specialist, it is crucial to have certain skills. These skills are discussed below.

  • Risk Assessment and Hazard Identification: You will learn how to identify potential workplace hazards and conduct thorough risk assessments. This skill will enable you to address safety concerns and implement appropriate control measures proactively.
  • Regulatory Compliance and Legal Awareness: Occupational health and safety specialists must stay updated with relevant safety regulations and standards. You will learn to interpret and apply these laws to ensure that workplaces comply with the necessary safety guidelines.
  • Accident Investigation and Root Cause Analysis: In the unfortunate event of an accident, you will gain skills in conducting comprehensive accident investigations to determine the root causes. This knowledge will assist in devising effective preventive measures to minimize future incidents.
  • Safety Program Development and Implementation: You will acquire expertise in creating tailored safety programs that align with the unique needs of organizations. This includes developing safety policies and procedures and conducting engaging training sessions for employees.
  • Emergency Response Planning and Crisis Management: occupational health and safety specialists must be well-prepared to handle emergencies. You will learn to develop robust emergency response plans, conduct drills, and coordinate crisis management efforts to safeguard employees’ well-being.
  • Ergonomics and Workplace Design: Understanding ergonomic principles will equip you to evaluate workspaces and tasks, ensuring they are designed to maximize efficiency and minimize the risk of musculoskeletal disorders.
  • Effective Communication: As a Safety Specialist, clear and concise communication is crucial. You will learn to effectively communicate safety guidelines, regulations, and procedures to employees, management, and other stakeholders. Your training sessions will be informative and engaging, fostering a safety-conscious culture within organizations. Additionally, as workplaces become more diverse, being culturally aware and sensitive will facilitate effective safety management in a global context.
  • Data Analysis and Reporting: You will develop skills in analyzing safety data and trends to identify patterns and areas for improvement. Creating informative safety reports will be essential to communicate insights and recommendations to management and regulatory authorities.
  • Problem-Solving and Decision-Making: Critical thinking skills will enable you to assess safety challenges and make informed decisions promptly. Your ability to prioritize tasks and implement effective solutions will be essential in maintaining a safe work environment.

Get Additional Training

While your degree program and internship/entry-level positions introduce you to the basics of occupational safety, there’s still more to learn. Thus, it is important to get additional training like the ones the Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers. OSHA offers outreach training courses on basic hazard awareness. It also offers occupational safety and health training through authorized education centers.

Get Certified

You should obtain relevant certifications during or after your internship to enhance your qualifications and credibility. There are quite a number of certifications available to you. These certifications are often offered by professional organizations and accrediting bodies that specialize in occupational health and safety. Thus, it is important to assess the ones relevant to your career trajectory. Here are some examples of certifications you should consider:

  • Certified Safety Professional (CSP): Offered by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP), the CSP certification is one of the most recognized and widely sought-after credentials in the field. It demonstrates a high level of knowledge and experience in safety management, risk assessment, and hazard control.
  • Associate Safety Professional (ASP): Also offered by the BCSP, the ASP certification is designed for individuals who are just starting their careers in safety. It provides a solid foundation of safety knowledge and serves as a stepping stone to the CSP certification.
  • Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH): Offered by the Board for Global EHS Credentialing, the CIH certification is for professionals specializing in industrial hygiene and workplace health hazards.
  • Construction Health and Safety Technician (CHST): Also provided by the BCSP, the CHST certification focuses on construction safety and is intended for individuals working in the construction industry.
  • Advanced Safety Certificate Program: Offered by the National Safety Council (NSC), this program helps professional safety specialists to build upon their knowledge of compliance requirements to further their safety education.

Consider a Master’s Degree (Optional)

Usually, a bachelor’s degree and relevant certifications suffice to secure occupational health and safety specialist roles. However, a master’s degree offers you a chance to further broaden your knowledge and advance your career in this field.

Earning a master’s degree also comes with the extra perk of finding fellow professionals and networking opportunities within the occupational health and safety community. Graduate programs often bring together students from diverse backgrounds and experiences, all seeking to expand their knowledge and expertise in the field.

These academic settings create an ideal environment for building a strong professional network. Interacting with classmates, professors, and industry experts can lead to valuable connections that can last throughout your career. Group projects, discussions, and workshops allow you to exchange ideas, share best practices, and gain insights from different perspectives.

What’s the Career Outlook for Occupational Health Safety Specialists?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of occupational health and safety specialists and technicians is projected to grow 5 percent from 2021 to 2031. This growth rate is on par with the average growth rate for all occupations in the United States

Over the decade, about 14,500 openings for occupational health and safety specialists and technicians are projected annually. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who exit the labor force through retirement or those that switch to different occupations.

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist?

Occupational health and safety specialists have a wide range of job opportunities across various industries and sectors. Their expertise is critical in ensuring workplace safety, preventing accidents, and protecting the health and well-being of employees. Some of the common job opportunities for occupational health and safety specialists include:

  • Safety Coordinator: Safety coordinators work closely with management and employees to implement safety programs and ensure compliance with safety regulations. They conduct safety inspections, provide training, and investigate accidents to prevent future incidents.
  • Health and Safety Officer: Health and safety officers are responsible for promoting a safe work environment, identifying potential hazards, and ensuring compliance with safety regulations. They collaborate with management and employees to address safety concerns and implement safety measures.
  • Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Specialist: EHS specialists focus on both occupational safety and environmental protection. They work to minimize workplace hazards and manage environmental risks associated with a company’s operations.
  • Safety Consultant: Safety consultants provide expert advice to organizations on safety policies, programs, and compliance. They may work independently or for consulting firms, assisting multiple clients across different industries.
  • Construction Safety Specialist: These specialists focus on safety within the construction industry. They ensure that construction sites adhere to safety regulations, conduct safety training, and monitor the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Industrial Hygienist: Industrial hygienists assess and control workplace hazards, such as chemical exposures, noise, and air quality. They design and implement strategies to protect workers’ health.
  • Safety Manager: Safety managers oversee the entire safety program within an organization. They develop safety policies, lead safety committees, and ensure compliance with safety regulations.
  • Risk Manager: Risk managers assess and manage potential risks to an organization, including safety risks. They develop risk management strategies to minimize the impact of potential hazards on the business.
  • Regulatory Compliance Specialist: These specialists focus on ensuring that organizations comply with safety regulations and standards set by government agencies, such as OSHA and other regulatory bodies.
  • Emergency Response Specialist: Emergency response specialists develop and implement plans for responding to workplace emergencies, such as fires, chemical spills, or natural disasters.

What Type of Organizations Hire Occupational Health and Safety Specialists?

Occupational health and safety specialists are in demand across a diverse range of organizations and industries. Any workplace that prioritizes the safety and well-being of its employees is likely to hire these specialists to ensure compliance with safety regulations and promote a safe work environment.

  • Manufacturing Companies: Manufacturing industries have a high focus on safety due to the presence of machinery, equipment, and potential hazards. Occupational health and safety specialists play a crucial role in implementing safety measures and conducting risk assessments in these environments.
  • Construction Companies: Construction sites are known for their safety challenges, making occupational health and safety specialists essential for managing risks, enforcing safety protocols, and conducting safety training.
  • Healthcare Facilities: Hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities hire occupational health and safety specialists to ensure the safety of patients, staff, and visitors. These specialists may be involved in infection control, handling hazardous materials, and managing emergency response plans.
  • Oil and Gas Companies: The oil and gas industry involves hazardous work environments, making safety a top priority. Occupational health and safety specialists in this sector focus on managing risks related to drilling, refining, and transportation operations.
  • Educational Institutions: Colleges and universities hire occupational health and safety specialists to create and implement safety programs for students, faculty, and staff.
  • Consulting Firms: Safety consulting firms provide services to multiple organizations. Occupational health and safety specialists in these firms work with different clients, conducting safety audits, providing safety training, and offering expert advice on safety programs.
  • Transportation and Logistics Companies: Organizations involved in transportation and logistics hire these specialists to address safety concerns related to transportation, handling of goods, and warehouse operations.
  • Technology Companies: In the technology sector, occupational health and safety specialists ensure the safety of employees working with equipment, including computers, servers, and other technological systems.

Balancing Work and Life as an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

To strike a balance as an occupational health and safety specialist, it’s crucial to establish clear boundaries between work and personal time. Avoid bringing work-related concerns into personal hours and disconnect from work emails and calls during off-duty periods. When feasible, negotiating a flexible work schedule can help manage personal events and family commitments without feeling overwhelmed.

Organizing and prioritizing tasks is essential for success. Plan work and personal commitments in advance, using calendars or scheduling tools to keep track of deadlines and meetings. Delegate tasks at work and collaborate with colleagues to share the workload, reducing stress and increasing efficiency.

Effective time management is a valuable skill for occupational health and safety specialists. Minimize distractions, take regular breaks during work hours, and use lunch breaks to recharge and relax. An organized workspace can also contribute to better productivity and reduced stress levels. Also, setting realistic expectations is key to avoiding over-commitment. Be mindful of personal limits and say no to additional tasks if it compromises work-life balance. With proactive steps and self-care, occupational health and safety specialists can thrive both in their careers and personal life.

Should I become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist?

The answer to this question depends solely on you, your interests, and your career aspirations. Think about your genuine interests and passion for workplace safety. Do you enjoy learning about safety regulations, risk assessment, and creating safer environments for people? If these topics truly pique your interest, it could be a promising sign that this career path aligns well with your aspirations.

Take a moment to ponder the job opportunities in this field. Occupational health and safety specialists are in demand in various industries, so there’s a good chance you’ll find diverse career options. Think about the type of organizations you’d like to work for and whether they align with your career aspirations.

It’s essential to contemplate the job opportunities in this field. Occupational health and safety specialists are in demand in various industries, offering diverse career paths. Think about the type of organizations you’d like to work for and whether they align with your long-term goals.

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Ibrahim Okunade

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