How to Become an Environmental Health and Safety Specialist

Research the requirements to become an environmental health and safety specialist. Learn about the job description, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in environmental health and safety.

Should I Become an Environmental Health and Safety Specialist?

Environmental health and safety specialists protect the well being of the public and the environment by ensuring that environmental regulations and workplace safety standards are met. These professionals often work for the federal, state or local government and might spend work hours in locations as varied as mines or factories.

Travel and irregular work hours are common. These specialists also often put themselves in dangerous or stressful situations in order to gauge levels of safety. However, they often make above-average salaries for their trouble. The following table contains the main requirements to become an environmental health and safety specialist, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Requirements

Degree LevelBachelor's degree
Degree FieldOccupational health, safety or a comparable scientific discipline
CertificationVoluntary certification is available through professional organizations
ExperienceWork experience is important, through internships or otherwise
Key SkillsGood communication skills, attention to detail, problem-solving personality, knowledge of the complex equipment needed to measure the environment, physical stamina and willingness to work on call in emergency cases
Salary$69,210 per year (Median salary from May, 2014 for all occupational health and safety specialists)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stated that most employers require environmental health and safety specialists to earn a bachelor's degree in environmental health and safety or a related discipline, such as biology or chemistry. Students in these programs typically complete classes in math, physics and chemistry. Coursework for the major may cover industrial waste management, environmental law compliance, ergonomics, occupational safety, toxicology, industrial hygiene, construction safety and organizational leadership. Students may be required to complete a senior capstone project.

Success Tip:

  • Complete an internship. Internship programs are an excellent way to gain work experience. Most programs include an internship or cooperative learning experience. Some internship opportunities may even be paid and can allow students to work under experienced safety specialists.

Step 2: Gain Experience

The State of California Employment Development Department reported that many employers prefer to hire environmental safety specialists with 1-3 years of work experience. Applicants may want to look for government jobs, since almost 40% of all health and safety specialists were employed by regional, state and federal government agencies as of 2010, according to the BLS. Many of these specialists focus on public health or environmental law. They may test drinking water, enforce product safety standards, clean up contaminated resources and inspect public spaces for health hazards. They also ensure that environmental regulations are met.

Success Tip:

  • Complete any specialized training. Under federal law, training approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required for specialists who assess asbestos and certain pesticides. Workers who wish to enter fields like these might want to look ahead at training or certification requirements.

Step 3: Consider Certification

Certification is not necessarily required by law, but voluntary certification could increase a professional's job prospects. For example, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals offers the Certified Safety Professional (CSP) title. The CSP credential requires a 4-year degree in any discipline or a 2-year degree related to environmental health and safety. Additionally, a minimum of three years of work experience in the environmental health and safety field is typically required. CSP candidates must pass two exams on safety principles and practices in order to earn the credential.

Other specialty certifications are available from various professional boards and organizations. For example, individuals who monitor radiation can voluntarily pursue health physicist certification. Those who monitor air quality in industrial settings might obtain certification as an industrial hygienist.

Step 4: Pursue a Master's Degree

According to the BLS, a graduate degree and extensive work experience are typically required for advanced safety specialist positions and supervisory roles. Numerous universities offer master's degree programs for those who seek advancement. Relevant master's degree programs are available in environmental health and safety, industrial hygiene and health physics. Students in industrial hygiene programs can learn how to recognize work-related hazards to prevent employee illness and injury. Health physics programs can teach students how to prevent radiation exposure. Environmental health and safety programs emphasize environmental protection and occupational safety.

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