According to a news release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private industry employers reported 2.3 million non-fatal workplace injuries in 2022, up 4.5% from the previous year. Overexertion, trips and falls, and exposure to harmful substances are among the most commonly reported causes of injury — despite being largely preventable.
If you’re passionate about creating positive change and improving people’s physical wellbeing in the workplace (which, of course, also has an impact on how they’re faring mentally), then a career in health and safety could be right for you.
Read on to find out what it takes to become a health and safety officer, what their typical duties entail, how much they earn, and what the job outlook is like!
A health and safety officer, also known as an occupational health and safety specialist or technician, is someone who collects and analyzes data to determine whether a workplace adheres to important safety regulations.
In case of uncovering potential or existing hazards to employees, health and safety officers are responsible for designing improvements that can be applied to the work environment and/or its procedures.
As the modern workplace and the way that we carry out our work keep evolving rapidly, occupational health and safety is one of the various professions for which continuing education is essential.
Health and safety specialists are responsible for inspecting work environments and procedures and ensuring that they pose no risks to staff. In more detail, they:
- Examine and evaluate equipment, tools and premises used by staff, such as scaffolds, roofs and machinery.
- Investigate incidents to uncover their root cause and suggest ways of preventing them from reoccurring.
- Create and implement procedures that minimize risks to workers, such as exposure to harmful chemicals.
- Educate staff and employers on maintaining workplace safety and using equipment properly.
- Prepare written reports on their findings and sharing those with their clients.
Occupational health and safety specialists examine workplaces for physical and environmental aspects that could pose a risk to employee health, comfort and performance. As such, their work is important in all industries, but especially so in settings where health hazards are more prominent, such as the construction and manufacturing industries.
Due to the nature of their job, they’re often required to travel long distances, inspecting both indoor and outdoor work settings, from offices to construction sites. Long periods of standing and squatting are also often required when inspecting premises, and so is lifting when checking out tools and machinery.
A job in health and safety inspection can also be quite stressful: when visiting construction sites and factories especially, an officer might encounter an emergency situation or an accident, or become exposed to falling debris, chemicals and other hazards themselves.
Considering the physical and mental challenges of the job, therefore, it’s important for health and safety officers to keep mind and body in good shape.
According to the BLS, a large portion of occupational health and safety specialists in the US work in local, state and federal governments. Many also find employment in the consulting services sector. As a result, the vast majority of health and safety specialists work full time (40-hour weeks).
In some instances, like in the case of emergencies or hazardous situations being identified, safety specialists might be called in after hours or on the weekends and holidays.
This exception, however, isn’t unique to this profession, as any working adult will tell you; most people, regardless of industry, will have to deal with emergencies or take on last-minute duties at work. According to a study by QuickBooks, workers in the agricultural, events management and transportation sectors especially seem to be clocking in a lot more hours compared to workers from other industries.
The mean hourly wage for health and safety officers in the US is $39.47. That translates into a mean annual salary of $82,110, with the lowest 10th percentile of officers earning $47,160 and the highest 10th percentile making $121,510 a year.
As with all occupations, higher salaries tend to come with greater amounts of work experience. However, there’s another thing that determines how much a health and safety specialist can earn: the industry they work in.
The top-paying industries for occupational health and safety specialists in the US are:
- Pipeline transportation of crude oil ($120,610)
- Scientific research and development services ($116,560)
- Petroleum and coal products manufacturing ($114,480)
- Oil and gas extraction ($110,760)
- Electric power generation, transmission and distribution ($107,500)
Of course, there is one more thing that can determine how much a worker is going to be remunerated for their services: their location! Although workers in Massachusetts, Washington, New York, New Jersey and California enjoy the nation’s highest salaries according to Forbes, the highest-paying states for health and safety professionals specifically are:
- District of Columbia ($100,200)
- Rhode Island ($96,750)
- California ($96,290)
- Massachusetts ($94,300)
- Colorado ($92,300)
In a snapshot:
Some professions, like cashiers and bank tellers, seem to be disappearing gradually, as self-checkout machines and advanced ATMs have reduced the need for human interaction in these settings. Health and safety officers, however, don’t seem to be at risk of having their jobs taken from them by robots — at least not any time in the foreseeable future.
According to the BLS, job openings for health and safety officers have been projected to grow 13% during the 2022–2032 period. That’s more than 17,000 new jobs being created every year. To put this into perspective, the average projected growth rate for all occupations is currently around 4%.
A website called Will Robots Take My Job? has identified the reasons why occupational health and safety technicians are at minimal risk of having their jobs become automated. It’s because the profession necessitates the following qualities, which are (at least for the time being) hard to automate:
- Social perceptiveness
- Persuasion and negotiation
- Assisting and caring for others
Try as it might to come up with something original, artificial intelligence is still confined to what has already been created by humans, as that’s the material it needs to draw from in order to learn. That goes for displaying emotions (such as empathy) as well, which is vital to this profession — machines can only mimic so much.
No matter what stage of life you’re at, whether you’ve just graduated from college or have worked for a few years and need a change, deciding on your next move can be tricky. When selecting a career path, you need to consider various things, from your potential earnings and job security to your own needs, preferences and interests.
As we’ve seen, a career in health and safety can be a great choice in terms of stability and income. It can also be incredibly rewarding knowing you’re helping keep others safe. So, how can you know if you’ll be a good fit?
Our career-matching platform, CareerHunter, has been designed by a team of career experts and psychometricians to help you identify what career paths suit your personality, skills and aspirations. Taking a work personality or reasoning test can be a great way to uncover career paths that suit you and rule out ones that don’t.
Every profession is a little bit different as to the set of skills and personal qualities that it requires. Aspiring health and safety professionals must be able to demonstrate the following in order to become successful in their career:
- Physical stamina. Health and safety technicians are required to stand and squat for long periods of time, as well as lift heavy objects.
- Communication skills. As it’s their job to walk employers and staff members through safety procedures and trainings, health and safety officers need to be able to communicate effectively.
- Attention to detail. When inspecting premises, tools and equipment, these professionals need to be focused and meticulous in their examinations.
- Problem-solving ability. Health and safety technicians need to be analytical and inventive enough to propose viable solutions to minimize workplace risks and hazards.
- Tech skills. Instruments and tools are vital to health and safety technicians’ jobs, as they enable the accurate assessment of workplace hazards.
- Familiarity with relevant legislation. In a profession that so closely concerns people’s safety and wellbeing, knowledge gaps can have grave consequences.
- A love for learning. Staying up to date with the latest practices and regulations is essential to maintaining health and safety certifications and designations.
A career in health and safety requires its fair share of preparation work as well as ongoing effort from the moment you land your first job onwards. Let’s look at what you must do in order to kickstart your career successfully!
Step 1: Graduate from high school
Not all jobs require you to graduate from high school. For a career in health and safety, however, you’re going to need a high school diploma, despite the fact that you’ll most probably receive on-the-job training when you get started.
Before you can work as an occupational health and safety specialist, you’ll almost certainly be expected to go to university and enroll in an accredited degree — for which you’ll need your diploma or GED.
Step 2: Identify your career goals
Before you decide on a degree or university, it’s a good idea to have conversations with family members, teachers you look up to or even a career counselor. By reflecting on things alone and also discussing with others, you can arrive at a clearer vision of your future.
Consider what things matter to you. What kind of lifestyle do you wish to have in a few years’ time? How much money do you think you’ll need to live comfortably? Are long commutes or frequent travel for work something you think you will want? All these things are important in order to choose the right health and safety specialization for you.
Although there’s really no way to predict what your priorities or needs may be 5 or 10 years down the line, it’s important to work on your self-awareness as much as possible so that you’re at least taking steps in a more general direction that’s desirable to you.
Having said that, try not to get caught up in the details and feel like you have to have it all figured out. You don’t — you just have to feel sure enough.
Step 3: Enroll in an undergraduate degree
Occupational health and safety jobs typically require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree. According to the BLS, besides an undergraduate degree in occupational health and safety, you could start your career in the field with a degree in biology or any healthcare major.
Associate degrees, which tend to have half the duration of bachelor’s degrees, are also accepted by some employers when a certification and relevant work experience are also present. In fact, to sign up for the Board of Certified Safety Professionals’ Associate Safety Professional certification, an associate degree in safety, health or environmental studies is the minimal requirement.
As you can see, then, you have a bit of flexibility when deciding on your path forward. So, take a look at your various options, consider what type of role you’d like to secure within the field, and make your choice!
Step 4: Consider doing a master’s degree
Across all industries, master’s degrees can increase your employability and boost your lifelong earnings. A report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has shown the following: the median lifetime income of full-time workers educated at bachelor’s level is about $2.8 million (which works out to $70,000 a year), while employees with master’s degrees earn around $3.2 million over their lifetime (or $80,000 annually).
But allowing you to negotiate a higher starting salary isn’t all that a master’s degree can do. For certain higher-level health and safety positions, a graduate degree is actually required. Again, you’ll have to consider your own career goals and future aspirations to determine whether a master’s degree is the right choice for you.
Step 5: Gain relevant work experience
While higher education will equip you with much of the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in your chosen field, nothing will strengthen and build on these the way that work experience can. So, if an internship opportunity arises during your studies or right after, make sure to apply for it. Volunteer work with an organization like the Occupational Safety and Health Association can also enhance your résumé.
The more you apply the things you learn at university to real-life scenarios, and the more you work with people who can help and guide you, the faster you’ll develop the skills you need for this profession, such as problem solving and analytical thinking.
Step 6: Earn a certification
The BCSP offers eight different health and safety certifications as well as two designations. Similarly, the National Association of Safety Professionals and the Board for Global EHS Credentialing also offer various professional courses to choose from.
These certification programs will typically require you to hold a bachelor’s degree (at the least) and have completed a specific number of work hours prior to enrollment. Your certifications will also typically need to be renewed every few years.
The reason for the latter is that in order for your certification to be valid, you’ll need to stay up to date with all the latest practices in your industry as well as any updates to health and safety laws. After all, you can’t conduct safety inspections effectively and suggest the right corrective actions if you yourself are unfamiliar with current regulations.
Step 7: Pursue continuous learning
Ongoing learning is essential for a successful career in occupational health and safety. That’s why any certifications and designations you earn in your field will require renewal every few years.
Besides studying and getting up to speed with new legislation, however, you must also try to avoid mistakes and offenses in your profession in order to keep your certification valid. The reason is because if your credential gets suspended or revoked, then the issuing body can deny your future applications for renewal.
Attending workshops and seminars is also a great way to gain information and expose yourself to new ideas. It can also introduce you to other health and safety professionals, allowing you to expand your network and potentially unlock more job opportunities in the future.
Still unsure if this is the right profession for you? We hope the following FAQs offer a bit more clarity.
Q: Is occupational health and safety a risky job?
A job in occupational health and safety does come with a degree of risk. Most commonly, these hazards are present in the form of harmful chemicals, poorly maintained structures and machinery, and falling debris. That’s why it’s imperative that health and safety officers use gloves, helmets and other personal protective equipment themselves.
Q: Is a bachelor’s degree required for this profession?
Though not a universal requirement, in many cases, employers will ask for a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety or a similar field, which includes healthcare and related majors. That’s why it’s important for high school students considering this career path to take science classes and pursue, at the very least, an associate’s degree upon graduation.
Q: How many types of certification are there?
Although employers won’t always ask for certificates, having one will allow you to go after more specialized positions in your field — and there are plenty of those in health and safety.
For example, the BCSP offers several certifications such as the Occupation Hygiene and Safety Technician and Certified Instructional Trainer certifications. To sign up for one, you’ll have to meet its specific requirements, which can include having a bachelor’s degree or a few years of relevant work experience.
Q: Does this career path offer advancement opportunities?
Experienced health and safety technicians can progress to a variety of roles within their profession, including health and safety adviser, manager, and director. Though entry-level roles won’t always have strict requirements in terms of experience and education, health and safety management positions will most likely ask for a particular type of degree, years of work experience, plus certification.
Q: Is occupational health and safety a rewarding job?
In an article for Psychology Today, professor of leadership and organizational psychology Ronald E Riggio identifies the characteristics of a great job. In his eyes, rewarding jobs are the ones that offer or facilitate autonomy, purpose, synergistic relationships and self-development.
Health and safety professionals commonly enjoy these elements in addition to high job security and good pay.
Regular inspections in the workplace are vital to preventing injuries and preserving employee health and wellbeing. From ergonomics and trip hazards to chemical exposure and fire safety, a thorough inspection covers the multiple ways in which employees’ health might be compromised and provides alternative ways of performing tasks and setting up the workplace.
As the age-old saying goes, after all, prevention is the best medicine.
If this sentiment resonates with you, and you consider yourself a proactive thinker and passionate problem solver, then a career in occupational health and safety could fit you like a glove. So, share your thoughts with us in a comment — do you see yourself pursuing this career path?