Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

Analysis or Research Safety Inspector, Cause Analyst, Certified Indoor Environmentalist   More Names
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Review, evaluate, and analyze work environments and design programs to control, eliminate, and prevent disease or injury. Includes careers that involve public health inspection and disease investigation and prevention. Occupational health and safety specialists look for physical biological, chemical, radiological, and other hazards in the workplace and community. They conduct inspections and inform business, organization, or agency management about areas not in compliance with state and federal laws or employer policies. Also work to make worker equipment more ergonomic - that is - designed to promote proper body position, increase worker comfort, and decrease fatigue.

Occupational health and safety specialists are experts focused on protecting workers from work related harm. They work with employers to mitigate or eliminate risk factors to human health associated with workplace duties. These specialists investigate working conditions to ensure compliance with government standards and make recommendations to improve safety protocol. Occupational health and safety specialists are also responsible for following up on complaints, or accidents that infer hazardous working conditions or processes.

Occupational health and safety specialists (also known as occupational health and safety inspectors) work for private sector companies, non-profit organizations, and local, state, and federal government agencies. They are employed by industrial and manufacturing firms; public and private hospitals; educational institutions; scientific, technical, and environmental consulting organizations; and the energy industry, including utility power generation, transmission and distribution, oil and gas drilling and refining and coal mining.

About 40 percent of these specialists are employed by local, state, or federal regulatory agencies to provide inspections and enforce health and safety laws and regulations. These include three common public health careers: health inspector, disease investigator and disease prevention specialist. In some work settings, these and other occupational health and safety specialists may perform their health and safety inspection and enforcement duties on a part-time basis along with other tasks.

Examples of federal agencies that play a significant legal and regulatory role in community and workplace health and safety concerns include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Within the USDOL, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) are especially prominent in worker and workplace health and safety matters and enforcement.

Each of these federal agencies also has counterparts at the state level and sometimes at the local level. Examples of such state level agencies may include a State Department of Agriculture or Department of Health and Safety, while at the local level they may be known as the Office of Public Health and Welfare, Bureau of Public Health Inspections, or similar title.

Occupational health and safety specialists help prevent harm to workers, property, the environment, and the general public. Responsibilities may include inspecting workplaces and equipment, revising or creating safety procedures, investigating complaints or causes of accidents, enforcing government safety regulations, ensuring safety protocol is implemented, testing air or water quality, and educating workers and employers about workplace safety. In addition to making workers safer, specialists aim to increase worker productivity by reducing absenteeism and equipment downtime. They also may help the organization save money by lowering insurance premiums and workers compensation payments; and preventing government fines and sanctions.

Occupational health and safety specialists who work for government agencies conduct inspections and may impose fines for workplace safety or environmental violations. They will inform an organization's management of areas not in compliance with state and federal laws, and work with them to address the problems. They also review credentials, licenses, and permits to ensure that these are up-to-date and in compliance with requirements.

Occupational health and safety specialists often work together with occupational health and safety technicians to ensure workplace safety. They may frequently communicate with management about the status of their health and safety programs, and consult with engineers or physicians, as needed. In the process of advising management of safety performance issues or hazards, they will write reports, including accident reports, and enter information on OSHA recordkeeping forms. They also may prepare documents used in legal proceedings.

There can be considerable variety in the type of day-to-day activities that an individual occupational health and safety specialist may perform. For example, some work for insurance companies, inspecting the facilities that are insured and suggesting ways to make improvements. In this role they often serve as "loss prevention specialists." Others primarily conduct safety training on how to recognize workplace hazards or sessions explaining federal and state health and safety laws and regulations.

Health inspectors are often employed by a local, state, or federal agency to help ensure the health and safety of workers and general public, but some also work for private businesses - such as restaurant chains, food processing plants or hospitals - to help make sure that the workplace is safe and sanitary for workers, customers or patients. A local public health inspector responsible for restaurant inspection, for example, will inspect eating establishments for overall cleanliness and sanitary conditions; absence of rodents and insect pests; properly working refrigerators, walk-in coolers, stove and ovens, and dishwashing equipment; employee instruction on health, safety and sanitation policies and procedures; and compliance with local and state permit and licensure requirements. For a private company, a health inspector or consultant may be hired to make sure a business is complying with all applicable federal, state and local occupational health and safety laws, including advice as to how to make needed improvements. In these settings, they also will test machines and equipment to make sure that they meet safety regulations. Disease investigators usually work for public health agencies, either federal, state, or local. Their job is to investigate when and why people in a local community or broader region are getting ill, identify the cause of their sickness, and then work with healthcare providers, such as doctors or nurses, and community agencies to contain or eliminate the outbreak. Disease investigators need to have skills and talents similar to those of a police detective, only instead of trying to solve crimes they are trying to solve outbreaks of disease or illness.

Disease prevention specialists work in communities to find ways to prevent or eliminate diseases or illnesses affecting a population, especially those resulting from public health or occupational causes, such as unclean drinking or cooking water, bites from disease bearing insects or rodents, or breathing heavily polluted air from industrial smokestacks. Once the cause or causes of a particular disease or illness is identified, disease prevention specialists often may work with other public health, clinical health professionals, political officials, and private businesses to address and correct the problem. In some cases, their work within a community or region may be short-term, but in other cases it can span years or decades, just as in the case of linking a higher cancer incidence rate with a long-standing toxic waste problem.

For someone with a bachelor's or master's degree, occupational health and safety specialist - including as a health inspector, disease investigator, or disease prevention specialist - can be an entry-level position on the occupational health and safety career ladder. It can also be a mid-level, next-step position for an individual who starts out as occupational health and safety technician.

With work experience, a specialist can move up to a supervisory position. Those who hold a bachelor's degree, or attain a master's degree, in industrial hygiene or safety can expect to be able to reach the top steps on this career ladder. Those who work for federal, state, or local agencies can advance through their particular career ladders. At the higher levels of government employment, advancement is often competitive and based on agency need as well as individual merit.

Credentials Needed: Occupational health and safety specialists generally are not required to be state licensed or registered. Four states, however, do require licensure for those involved with air quality, mold abatement, and related issues. The American Council for Accredited Certification (ACAC) lists these four states as Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, and New York. While employment in the occupational health and safety field is not heavily regulated, the environmental and industrial settings that are the focus of occupational health and safety specialists are the focus of significant federal, state, and local laws and regulations. As a result, many employers prefer to have their occupational health and safety specialist employees earn one or more appropriate voluntary industry-based certifications. Especially in the case of the case of health inspector, earning a state specified industry-based certification is often required for entry-level employment or advancement. These certification requirements vary by state and sometimes also by local community, so it is a good idea to check these requirements for the state and community where an individual is planning to work.

The American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH) offers the Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) credential. To earn the CIH certification, an individual must meet minimum requirements for education and experience as well as demonstrate through examination knowledge of the following subject areas: air sampling and instrumentation; analytical chemistry; basic science; biohazards; biostatistics and epidemiology; community exposure; engineering controls and ventilation; ergonomics; health risk analysis and hazard communication; industrial hygiene program management; noise; non-engineering controls; ionizing and non-ionizing radiation; thermal stress; toxicology; work environments, and industrial processes. Because of the broad range and depth of required subject matter expertise, the CIH credential appears well-suited to a mid-level or advanced occupational health and safety specialist or industrial hygienist.

Several other organizations offer other voluntary industry-based certifications that may be useful to an occupational health and safety specialist. For example, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP) awards the Occupational Health and Safety Technologist (OHST) credential - as well as the basically identical Construction Health and Safety Technician (CHST) credential for those who work primarily in a construction environment.

To earn the OHST, an occupational health and safety specialist must have duties that require technical skill and knowledge in occupational health or safety; work part-time (at least 35 percent) or full-time in occupational health or safety; have five years of experience in occupational health or safety; and pass the OHST certification exam. However, candidates may substitute college courses in health and safety, or an associate's degree or higher in certain disciplines, for some - or all - of the experience requirement. This last feature may make this certification appropriate for an entry-level occupational health and safety specialist.

The BCSP also sponsors the Certified Safety Professional (CSP) credential. CSP requirements include an associate's degree of higher, three years of professional safety experience with demonstrated knowledge or professional safety practice, and passing two exams: Safety Fundamentals, which emphasizes recall and recognition of core safety subjects and Comprehensive Practice, which focuses on the practice of safety principles.

The American Board of Health Physics (ABHP) grants professional certification in the field of health physics with the Certified Health Physicist (CHP) credential. This certification is earned by passing an exam; more information is available on the ABHP website.

The American Council for Accredited Certification (ACAC) offers over a dozen specialized certifications for various aspects of air quality including infection control and microbial investigation and remediation. More information about these certifications is available on the ACAC website.

For occupational health and safety specialists in public health, the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE) sponsors the Certified in Public Health (CPH) credential. Those who have or are earning a graduate level degree (Masters or Doctoral) from a school or program of public health accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) are eligible to earn this certification.

Some Key Things to Remember: Occupational health and safety specialists - including health inspectors, disease investigators, and disease prevention specialists - review, evaluate, and analyze work environments and design programs to control, eliminate, and prevent disease or injury. They look for physical, biological, chemical, radiological, and other hazards in the workplace including those that may impact the broader community. About 40 percent of persons in these careers are employed by local, state, or federal regulatory agencies. Most entry-level positions require a minimum of a bachelor's degree, with some employers looking for a master's degree. While not generally requiring state licensing or registration as a condition to work, employers often prefer those who have earned an appropriate industry-based certification.

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Job Growth and Wages
Percent Job Growth:  
4% - Slower than average
Typical Wages (National):  
Annual: $54,320 - $88,050    Hourly: $26 - $42
Physical/Medical/Health Requirements

Physical requirements depend on the responsibilities of the particular employment position. Some positions may involve walking or standing for long periods of time.

Legal Requirements
Similar Careers

Occupational Health and Safety Technician
Typical Education: Bachelor's Degree (High School + 4 or more Years)
Salary (National): $37,610 - $63,200

(Data Drawn from O*NET)

Career Snapshot

Typical Education:

Bachelor's Degree (High School + 4 or more Years)
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Percent Job Growth:

4% - Slower than average
Find Jobs

Typical Wages:

Annual: $54,320 - $88,050

Hourly: $26 - $42