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How to Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

Learn how to become an occupational health and safety specialist. Explore the job description and the education and training requirements, and find out how to start a career in occupational health and safety.

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Should I Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist?

An occupational health and safety specialist works to prevent or decrease any type of injury or harm to people in the workplace. They typically examine a variety of work environments and ensure that safety regulations are being followed. An occupational health and safety specialist can find employment in a variety of industries, including local, state and federal governments, hospitals and manufacturing. They can pursue a variety of job titles, such as industrial hygienist, health physicist and environmental protection officer. As these professionals test the safety of various work environments, they sometimes put themselves in dangerous situations and must take precautions to prevent injury. Most occupational health and safety specialists work full-time, sometimes putting in extra hours in emergency situations.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree standard; some positions require a master's degree
Degree Fields Occupational health, industrial hygiene, health physics or a major in the physical sciences
Experience At least 5 years required by most employers
Certification Voluntary certifications available
Key Skills Strong communication, detail oriented, problem-solving and technical skills, physical stamina, ability to use complex testing equipment
Salary $69,210 per year (2014 median salary for all occupational health and safety specialists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Online Job Postings (August 2015)

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Individuals interested in pursuing careers as occupational health and safety specialists will typically need bachelor's degrees in occupational health and safety or a related scientific field. Bachelor's degree programs instruct students about the ethical, legal and professional responsibilities of occupational health and safety specialists in the workplace. Coursework includes safety and health standards, health hazard identification, industrial hygiene, occupational safety and hazardous materials and waste management. Students can also pursue related bachelor's degrees in chemistry, engineering or biology.

Success Tips

  • Develop strong communication skills. Communicating with managers and employees about safety in the workplace is an essential role of an occupational health and safety specialist. While in school, students may take advantage of courses in public speaking and interpersonal communication to build the skills necessary to become effective communicators.
  • Complete an internship. Most bachelor's degree programs offer internship opportunities that students can take as electives. By participating in an internship, students will have the opportunity to gain supervised on-site experience. This can occur in a variety of settings, including government, business and industry.

Step 2: Complete On-The-Job Training

A significant amount of on-the-job training is needed to learn the inspection procedures and applicable laws of various work environments. Since occupational health and safety specialists can work in numerous settings, the training they receive will be specific to the environment that they work in. For example, a specialist who works in a manufacturing facility will likely require different training from a specialist who works in an office environment. Training typically occurs under the supervision of an experienced professional and may take up to one year to complete.

Step 3: Earn Certification

While certification is voluntary for occupational health and safety specialists, many employers prefer candidates who have obtained certification. One can become certified through a variety of organizations, including the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH) and the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP). Through the ABIH, a specialist can become a certified industrial hygienist (CIH). The certified safety professional (CSP) credential is offered by the BCSP. To achieve these certifications, one must meet requirements regarding education, coursework and years of experience and pass an exam.

Success Tip

  • Get additional training. Employers often prefer candidates who have completed additional training offered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). By participating in OSHA training programs, specialists can learn more about how to recognize and prevent safety and health hazards within the workplace.

Step 4: Maintain Certification

To maintain the CSP certification, specialists must pay an annual fee and complete 25 recertification points every five years. CSPs can gain recertification points by completing a variety of activities, such as joining safety organizations, performing voluntary professional service, presenting at conferences and writing exam questions. To maintain the CIH certification, professionals need to pay a fee, practice ethical behavior and submit a certificate maintenance worksheet or pass an exam.

Step 5: Acquire a Master's Degree

While a bachelor's degree is sufficient for many jobs within this field, a master's degree in industrial hygiene or health physics may be needed for some positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Programs in industrial hygiene educate students in a variety of areas, including environmental sampling and analysis, chemical hazards evaluation and airborne contaminants exposure control. Radiation detection, radiochemistry and radiobiology are a few topics that are included in health physics master's programs.

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