What does an Occupational Health Specialist do?

What is an Occupational Health Specialist?

Occupational health and safety specialists analyze many types of work environments and work procedures. They inspect workplaces for adherence to regulations on safety, health, and the environment. They also design programs to prevent disease or injury to workers and damage to the environment. They work in a variety of settings, such as offices, factories, and mines. Their jobs often involve fieldwork and travel. Most specialists work full time.

What does an Occupational Health Specialist do?

Occupational health and safety specialists typically do the following:

  • Identify chemical, physical, radiological, and biological hazards in the workplace
  • Collect samples of potentially toxic materials for analysis
  • Inspect and evaluate workplace environments, equipment, and practices to ensure that safety standards and government regulations are being followed
  • Recommend measures to help protect workers from potentially hazardous work conditions
  • Investigate accidents to identify their causes and to determine how they might be prevented in the future.

Occupational health and safety specialists examine lighting, equipment, ventilation, and other conditions that could affect employee health, safety, comfort, and performance. Workers usually are more alert and productive in environments that have specific levels of lighting or temperature. Specialists seek to increase worker productivity by reducing absenteeism and equipment downtime. They also seek to save money by lowering insurance premiums and workers’ compensation payments and by preventing government fines.

Some specialists develop and conduct employee safety and training programs. These programs cover a range of topics, such as how to use safety equipment correctly and how to respond in an emergency.

Specialists work to prevent harm not only to workers but also to property, the environment, and the public by inspecting workplaces for chemical, radiological, and biological hazards. Specialists who work for governments conduct safety inspections and can impose fines.

Occupational health and safety specialists work with engineers and physicians to control or fix potentially hazardous conditions or equipment. They sometimes collect and analyze data in the workplace.

The tasks of occupational health and safety specialists vary by industry, workplace, and types of hazards affecting employees. The following are examples of different types of such specialists:

  • Environmental protection officers evaluate and coordinate storing and handling hazardous waste, cleaning up contaminated soil or water, and other activities that affect the environment.

  • Ergonomists consider the design of industrial, office, and other equipment to maximize workers' comfort, safety, and productivity.

  • Health physicists work in locations that use radiation and radioactive material, helping to protect people and the environment from hazardous radiation exposure.

  • Industrial hygienists identify workplace health hazards, such as lead, asbestos, noise, pesticides, and communicable diseases.

  • Loss prevention specialists work for insurance companies. They inspect the facilities that are insured and suggest improvements to prevent losses.

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How to become an Occupational Health Specialist

High school students interested in becoming occupational health and safety specialists should take courses in English, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics.

Occupational health and safety specialists typically need a bachelor’s degree in occupational health, safety, or a related scientific or technical field, such as engineering, biology, or chemistry. For some positions, a master’s degree is required in industrial hygiene, health physics, or a related subject.

Typical courses include radiation science, hazardous material management and control, risk communications, and respiratory protection. These courses may vary, depending on the specialty in which a student wants to work. For example, courses in health physics focus on topics that differ from those in industrial hygiene.

Work experience is often important in this occupation. Internships are not required, but employers often prefer to hire candidates who have had one.

Although occupational health and safety specialists learn standard laws and procedures in their formal education, they also need a moderate amount of on-the-job training for specific work environments. For example, all workplaces must meet a certain standard for air quality. However, a specialist who will inspect offices needs different training than a specialist concentrating on factories.

Although certification is voluntary, many employers encourage it. Certification is available through several organizations, depending on the field in which the specialists work. Specialists must have graduated from an accredited educational program and have work experience to be eligible to take most certification exams. To keep their certification, specialists are usually required to complete periodic continuing education.

What is the workplace of an Occupational Health Specialist like?

Occupational health and safety specialists work in a variety of settings, such as offices, factories, and mines. Their jobs often involve considerable fieldwork and travel. Most work full time. Some specialists may work weekends or irregular hours in emergencies.

Most large government agencies employ specialists to protect agency employees. In addition to working for governments, occupational safety and health specialists work in management, scientific, and technical consulting services; education services; hospitals; and chemical manufacturing. They may be exposed to strenuous, dangerous, or stressful conditions. Specialists use gloves, helmets, and other safety equipment to minimize injury.