What Does it Mean to Study 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.
Types of Occupational Safety and Health Degrees
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 health 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, which usually last only a few months, are built around the knowledge required for national certification exams, such as the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (CSP) exam. A certificate program may also be useful to professionals who work in a field related to occupational safety, such as quality control and safety, who want to learn relevant regulations, policies and acceptable practices.
Associate Degrees in Occupational Safety
Associate degree programs in occupational safety and health can be an important step towards an entry-level position in this field or, alternately, towards a higher-level degree program. Associate degree coursework involves foundational science courses geared toward developing basic competencies, communication skills, and working knowledge of appropriate equipment and sample analysis. 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 is usually more involved and in-depth than in an associate's degree.
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.
What Can You Do With a College Degree 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
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 monitors 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 safe?
- 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?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job opportunities in this field are expected to grow at approximately the national average between the years of 2008 and 2018. Working environments include:
- Manufacturing firms
- 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. 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.
Environmental protection officer. As populations expand into suburban and exurban communities, many local and regional agencies have bolstered their efforts to preserve their environmental integrity. This is the responsibility of environmental protection officers. Whether working on federally funded cleanup programs or developing local conservation efforts, these professionals help 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.
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 may result in fines or forced closure.
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.
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 is focused on information and awareness. NIOSH does not fine, but only assists in the dispersion of knowledge and understanding of governmental regulations. Through NIOSH, private employers can obtain a health inspection and safety evaluation to learn what their issues might be without the danger of being penalized, allowing them to fix these issues before OSHA performs an inspection.
Occupational Safety and Health 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: