Guide to College Majors in Occupational Safety and Health

In the multitude of counsellors there is safety.
--Bible, Proverbs xi. 14.

What is Occupational Safety and Health?

Occupational safety and health refers to the practice of observing and analyzing working environments to ensure that they are safe for employees. Every workplace, be it a factory, a kitchen, or a store, has the potential for accidents to occur. The job of the occupational safety specialist is to anticipate and identify potential hazards so that the employer may make appropriate changes before accidents happen.

Potential workplace hazards may include flaws in the design of a building that could cause physical injury to employees, biological or chemical hazards, or on-the-job stress due to overwork and poor working conditions. Occupational safety and health technicians work to prevent harm to property, workers, the public, and the environment. They are responsible for implementing regulations that improve buildings, equipment and working practices. Working closely with many different organizations and regulatory agencies, occupational health specialists educate employers on healthier and safer working practices.

Many professionals in this field are employed by government agencies. Jobs such as these require a four-year college degree. Other jobs in this field may be obtained with an associate degree.

Career Education in Occupational Safety and Health

In order to meet the needs of busy working professionals, many institutions offer online degrees in occupational safety and health. Distance learning programs are typically designed for professionals who wish to enhance their skills in designing, implementing, and evaluating public strategies for improving disease prevention.

Online degree programs serve the needs of students who, because of geographic or time constraints, would not be able to enroll in an on-campus program. Coursework is conducted online under the supervision of a properly qualified instructor. Students may be required to view videos and to participate in online discussions.

Certificates in Occupational Safety
Certificate programs, usually lasting only a few months, generally prepare practitioners in the field for national certification exams, such as the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (CSP) exam. A certificate course may also be useful to professionals in related fields, who want to learn relevant regulations, policies and acceptable practices. Often, employers will want to keep current with this information as a way of preventing unintentional violation of regulations.

Associate Degrees in Occupational Safety
Associate degrees in occupational safety and health qualify graduates for a variety of entry-level jobs in the field. More often, however, this program is used as a springboard for higher-level degrees.

Associate degree coursework involves foundational science courses and hands-on training that will prepare students to enter the job market. These programs are geared toward developing basic competencies, communication skills, and working knowledge of appropriate equipment and sample analysis. Graduates will be fully qualified to enter this rapidly growing job market as a pre-service or junior safety practitioner. Associate programs usually last two years and require the completion of at least 65 credit hours.

Bachelor's Degrees in Occupational Safety
The Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety usually requires 128 credit hours to be completed successfully. These degree programs typically include general education courses as well as foundational science courses, upper-division specialist classes and usually an internship or other fieldwork. Coursework will be more involved and in-depth than in an associate's degree. Because bachelor's graduates have a more thorough knowledge of the subject, more job opportunities will be available.

Bachelor's degree programs produce competent and highly trained professionals. After passing foundational science courses, such as biology, psychology, and social studies, students advance to more specialized classes. Bachelor's degrees in occupational safety focus on:

  • Developing writing skills
  • Delivering oral presentations
  • Learning health and social theory
  • Learning computer technology
  • Practicing management and leadership skills

Online bachelor's degrees in occupational safety and health have become increasingly common as working adults seek career-boosting education. These programs tend to be more flexible and oriented more towards adult learners, though traditional students often find them convenient as well.

Careers in Occupational Safety and Health

You may be surprised to know how many potential hazards exist in the average workplace. The first potential dangers that come to mind may involve machinery without proper safety guards, or industrial kitchens with substandard levels of cleanliness. As an occupational safety specialist, you may have to deal with any of the following:

  • Poor equipment design that may cause accidents
  • Unhealthy exposure to high level noises
  • Low quality seating which may cause worker discomfort
  • Conditions which may cause unnecessary worker fatigue
  • Exposure to toxic fumes
  • Existence of explosive gas-air mixtures
  • Insufficient or poorly functioning ventilation systems
  • Inappropriate lighting

Setting Standards for Safety
All businesses are subject to regular evaluation by health and safety specialists. When an inspector evaluates a workplace, she must make a note of every detail. The resulting data is analyzed and the workplace is assigned a grade.

Once this rating has been established, the employer is made aware of the potential danger for accident or disease, overexposure to chemicals, poor ventilation, or any other perceived dangers. That employer is then given an opportunity to remedy the situation. The employer must at this point change the working practices of the business, upgrade the equipment, or make any improvements that the inspector deems necessary. The health and safety specialist will monitor the progress of the working conditions to ensure that proper steps are being taken.

Do You Have What It Takes for a Career in Occupational Safety?

Before embarking upon a career in occupational safety and health, make sure your interests and personality traits are right for a career in this field. Some important questions to ask yourself are:

  • Am I concerned about the safety of my workplace?
  • Do I take pleasure in making sure that my surroundings are clean and secure?
  • Am I interested in the general well-being of others?
  • Am I naturally capable of retaining large amounts of information?
  • Do I observe my surroundings in great detail?
  • Do I have good communication skills?
  • Do I like to travel?

Benefits of a Career in Occupational Safety and Health

College graduates in this field will be greeted with abundant career opportunities, including positions in government agencies, service industries, insurance companies, and manufacturing industries, depending on the degree you choose. Jobs are available for associate degree holders, but most require at least a bachelor's degree.

Occupational health and safety specialists must be trained in, and keep current with, all applicable laws and policies pertaining to public safety. This education comes from continuing education coursework as well as on-the-job training. With increasing career education and experience, promotion to a managerial position is possible. While industry and government jobs require varying levels of education, research and academic positions will often require master's or PhD degrees.

Employment Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job opportunities in this field are expected to grow at as fast as average in the coming years. Since many opportunities in this field are in federal, state, or local government (two out of every five positions in this field are governmental), job security is above average. Working environments include:

  • Manufacturing firms
  • Hospitals
  • Engineering services
  • Colleges and universities
  • Employment services
  • Management consulting services
  • Scientific and technical consulting services
  • Electric power industries
  • Scientific research
  • Development services
  • Architectural services
  • Mining industries

More Career Opportunities for Occupational Safety and Health Majors

Industrial hygienist. These professionals use their experience in occupational safety and health to protect their communities. Industrial hygienists hunt for potential dangers in a variety of workplaces. They might uncover potential health hazards in the store room of a restaurant or a grocery store. Unlike government health officers, who enforce laws and issue fines, industrial hygienists work with business owners to prevent violations. They educate front line staff members and develop company policies to comply with stringent regulations. Their work impacts the bottom lines of successful companies by reducing liability and healthcare insurance costs, while maintaining high customer satisfaction.

Ergonomist. American businesses have discovered that modest investments in workplace ergonomics produce a major impact on the bottom line. Workers who feel comfortable can perform their tasks more efficiently and often remain with the same employer for significantly longer periods of time than the national average. The savings in healthcare and employee training boost the value of company shares and keep retail costs low. Professional ergonomists examine offices and factories for potential opportunities to increase the comfort and the safety of staff members. From simple solutions like ergonomic keyboards to radical changes in architecture and lighting, ergonomists anticipate the needs of a new generation of American workers.

Environmental protection officer. With rapid expansion of population into suburban and exurban communities, many local and regional agencies have bolstered their efforts to preserve their environmental integrity by hiring more protection officers. Whether working on federally funded cleanup programs or developing local conservation efforts, a new wave of protection officers helps towns and counties welcome new residents and businesses while enforcing existing regulations. Environmental protection officers lead the charge for responsible construction by shaping rules that dictate green space, water runoff, and waste disposal. They also assure residents that the quality of life of an existing community will not be ruined when developers come to town.

What is OSHA?

Most job opportunities within the federal government are for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors. OSHA is a governmental body whose primary responsibility is to enforce U.S. Department of Labor regulations and policies on workplace safety. OSHA standards are protected by law. Violation of these standards by a business with a substandard environment will result in fines or forced closure.

What is NIOSH?

While OSHA is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Whereas OSHA is essentially a regulation-enforcing body, NIOSH provides private employers with the possibility of getting a health inspection and safety evaluation without the danger of being penalized. The NIOSH does not fine, but only assists in the dispersion of knowledge and understanding of governmental regulations.

As a precaution, many private companies employ their own occupational health specialist, or contract for the services of a non-governmental inspector. This ensures OSHA compliance before the OSHA inspector pays his or her visit.

Certification and Licensure

Though certification is optional, employers often use voluntary certifications as a way to objectively evaluate the talents of potential new hires. Boards and trade associations that issue voluntary certifications include:

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