Occupational Safety and Health Workers


Exploring this Job

Your science teachers, teachers of technical subjects, and school vocational counselors may offer guidance to useful courses of study and any available work-study programs. Math and science clubs may develop your interest in a safety career; debate teams and drama clubs can help you develop communication skills.

You may be able to interview with and attend lectures by occupational safety and health professionals, giving you an opportunity to ask questions and get an overview of the field. Field trips to an industrial plant or other work site will also give you an appreciation for the profession.

There are no shortcuts in the educational process, but as you begin to fulfill your academic goals, you may seek part-time and summer jobs that are related to your career objectives. These jobs in turn may lead to permanent positions upon graduation. Part-time and summer jobs in manufacturing plants will give you firsthand experience in observing working conditions and help you become familiar with some of the equipment that is important to safety workers. You may also be able to find safety- or health-related jobs in local hospitals and insurance companies. Student internships are a good way to enter the field. One of the best-known internship programs is run by the Occupational & Environmental Safety & Health Department at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Another way to study the field is to check out some Web sites, such as those of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (https://www.osha.gov), Osh.net (http://www.osh.net), and Safety Link (http://www.safetylink.com).

The Job

Safety and health workers have a variety of responsibilities, which fall into four basic areas.

First, they identify and evaluate hazardous conditions and practices. They inspect facilities and equipment, conduct accident investigations, analyze work procedures, study building layouts, and consult with workers who are exposed to hazardous conditions.

Second, safety and health workers develop ways to control hazards. They observe, analyze, and solve problems using deductive reasoning and creativity.

Third, safety personnel communicate hazard-control information to workers and management.

Fourth, safety personnel continually measure hazard-control systems and adjust them as needed. Safety employees gather information from accident investigations, inspections, customer or employee complaints, and other sources, such as government agencies and regulations. They may employ such strategies as designing or redesigning equipment and machinery, providing physical safeguards (for example, protective clothing or rock deflectors on lawn mowers), or training workers in the use of safe procedures.

Safety technicians are primarily concerned with preventing accidents. In a large industrial plant, they may develop a safety program that covers several thousand employees. They examine plans for new machinery and equipment to see that all safety precautions have been included and put in place. They determine the weight-bearing capacity of the plant floor. They inspect existing machinery and design, build, and install safeguards where necessary. Many safety technicians work with design engineers to develop safe models of their company's products and monitor the manufacturing process to make sure the finished product is safe and reliable to use.

If an accident occurs, safety technicians investigate the cause. If the accident is related to a mechanical problem, they use their technical skills to correct it and prevent a recurrence. If it is because of human error, they may educate the particular workers in proper safety procedures and draw up an education program for the entire staff.

Safety technicians also work as mine examiners to inspect mines to assure proper airflow and check for health hazards such as a buildup of noxious gases. Environmental protection technicians evaluate and coordinate the storage and cleanup of hazardous materials and wastes in soil and water. Industrial hygiene technicians inspect workplaces for health hazards such as employee exposure to lead, asbestos, pesticides, or other dangerous products.

Occupational safety and health inspectors work for government and regulatory agencies. They visit workplaces to detect unsafe machinery and equipment or to check for unhealthy working conditions. They discuss their findings with the employer or plant manager and request immediate correction of violations in accordance with federal, state, and local government standards and regulations.

In the mining industry, mining inspectors inspect underground and open-pit mines to ensure compliance with health and safety laws. They check timber supports, electrical and mechanical equipment, storage of explosives, and other possible hazards. They test the air for toxic or explosive gas or dust. They may also design safety devices and protective equipment for mine workers, lead rescue activities in the event of an emergency, and instruct mine workers in safety and first-aid procedures.

The light, heat, and power industry employs safety engineers, known as safety inspectors, to ensure the safety of the workers who construct and maintain overhead and underground power lines. Safety inspectors check safety belts, ladders, ropes, and tools; observe crews at work to make sure they use goggles, rubber gloves, and other safety devices; and examine the condition of tunnels and ditches. They investigate accidents, devise preventive measures, and instruct workers in safety matters.

Fire protection engineers have different tasks depending on where they work. In general, their job is to safeguard life and property against fire, explosion, and related hazards. Those employed by design and consulting firms work with architects and other engineers to build fire safety into new buildings. They study buildings before and after completion for such factors as fire resistance, the use and contents of the buildings, water supplies, and entrance and exit facilities. Fire protection engineers who work for manufacturers of fire equipment design alarm systems, fire-detection mechanisms, and fire-extinguishing devices and systems. They also investigate causes of accidental fires and may organize and train personnel to carry out fire-protection programs.

Fire prevention research engineers conduct research to determine the causes of fires and methods for preventing them. They study such problems as fires in high-rise buildings, and they test fire retardants and the fire safety of building materials. The results of such research are then used by fire protection engineers in the field. Fire prevention research engineers also prepare educational materials on fire prevention for insurance companies.

Fire marshals supervise and coordinate the activities of the firefighters in large industrial establishments such as refineries and auto plants. They also inspect equipment such as sprinklers and extinguishers; inspect the premises for combustion hazards and violations of fire ordinances; conduct fire drills; and direct fire-fighting and rescue activities in case of emergencies.

While safety and fire prevention engineers work to prevent accidents, industrial hygienists are concerned with the health of the employees in the workplace. They collect and analyze samples of dust, gases, vapors, and other potentially toxic material; investigate the adequacy of ventilation, exhaust equipment, lighting, and other conditions that may affect employee health, comfort, or efficiency; evaluate workers' exposure to radiation and to noise; and recommend ways of controlling or eliminating such hazards. These hygienists work at the job site.

Other industrial hygienists work in the private laboratories of insurance, industrial, or consulting companies, where they analyze air samples, research health equipment, or investigate the effects of chemicals. Health physicists are specialists in radiation. Still other industrial hygienists specialize in the problems of air and water pollution.

Environmental safety and health workers prevent hazards to the environment and are concerned with pollution control, energy efficiency, recycling, waste disposal, and compliance with the government's Environmental Protection Agency requirements.

Loss-control and occupational health consultants are safety inspectors hired by property-liability insurance companies to perform services for their clients. They inspect insured properties and evaluate the physical conditions, safety practices, and hazardous situations that may exist; determine whether the client is an acceptable risk; calculate the amount of the insurance premium; and develop and monitor a program to eliminate or reduce all hazards. They also help set up health programs and medical services and train safety personnel.