The Field of Occupational Health and Safety
By Christina Thielst, LFACHE
The field of occupational health and safety focuses on ensuring the safety of employees and their workspaces across a broad range of industries and job functions.
To help protect workers, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to assure “safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and providing training, outreach, education, and assistance.” OSHA accomplished much of their work through their state partners and regional offices across the country and the efforts of individual inspectors who provide guidance and assess compliance. In 2015, the 10 most frequently cited standard violations were:
Fall protection, construction
Hazard communication standard, general industry
Scaffolding, general requirements, construction
Respiratory protection, general industry
Control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout), general
Powered industrial trucks, general industry
Electrical, wiring methods, components, equipment, general industry
Machinery and Machine Guarding, general requirements
Electrical systems design, general requirements, general industry
...some workplace safety failures can also extend beyond workers and jeopardize the health and safety of the community.
There is a financial cost to employers, workers, and even the public for not complying with health and safety standards and when injuries and illness occur. The cost includes loss of wages and productivity, increased worker's compensation rates, fines/penalties, legal liability and loss of reputation and image among the public. Also, some workplace safety failures can also extend beyond workers and jeopardize the health and safety of the community. Examples include the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials, an electrical fire in a high rise building, or improper handling and disposal of hazardous wastes at a hospital.
The severity of risks and potential costs are often the motivating factor for an employer to hire professionals with health and safety training to manage their safety program and minimize losses.
The Role of a Workplace Safety Manager
Large employers and those whose workers are exposed to significant hazards and risks often find it necessary to hire part or full-time safety managers. In some cases, they will employ multiple safety professionals to staff a distinct safety department lead by a director.
The responsibilities of these safety managers are to ensure compliance with OSHA standards and to coordinate inspections, obtain needed permits and educate workers on how they individually contribute to the safety of the workplace.
Education requirements for safety managers can include certification or associate or bachelor's level degrees. Directors of safety departments may also be required to possess a master's degree. Given the broad range of risks and hazards to workers, some safety managers may also specialize and develop expertise in areas such as hazardous materials (hazmat), emergency preparedness, electrical safety, fire safety, construction safety, healthcare safety, etc.
Other Health and Safety Roles
Experienced safety professionals who also complete OSHA 500 training for construction or general industry can become certified trainers; teaching health and safety principles to others in their workplace. Additionally, they could establish their own small business and conduct training for multiple companies or and groups of workers.
Other safety professionals might also pursue careers with OSHA or one of its state partners as compliance safety and health officers. These federal or state employees inspect workplaces for compliance with standards and requirements, conduct outreach and help employers and workers reduce workplace hazards.
Careers in safety management can be particularly attractive to individuals who already possess experience in an industry and are ready to progress and take on new responsibilities. Also, this profession may be interesting for those needing to shift away from the day-to-day rigors or physical demands of their present employment in nursing, construction or the trades. The role of safety manager, for example, could allow them to use their expertise in new ways.
Bio: Christina Thielst, LFACHE is a former hospital safety officer and currently consults with public health agencies and community collaboratives to improve their emergency preparedness and disaster response capabilities.