Becoming a safety professional is a rewarding career choice. Their work creates safer, healthier work environments and protects the well-being of others.
Occupational safety and health is also a growing field. Currently 110,000 safety professionals strong, all safety-related roles are projected to increase through 2024, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“There are thousands of different opportunities,” says Chance Roberts, author of “The Beginner's Guide to the Environmental, Health and Safety Profession.” “Not only is there high demand for EHS professionals, but there are growth opportunities as well.”
Roberts shared early-career insights with members of our Management Practice Specialty in the webinar “Is the EHS Profession Right for Me?”.
“No matter where or how you start, starting is what matters, taking that first step,” Roberts says.
The Responsibilities of a Safety Professional
While you may have a general idea of what becoming a safety professional entails, there are many expectations, tasks and responsibilities that could come as a surprise. Roberts divides these responsibilities into two major categories: personnel/operations and regulatory.
Personnel/operation general responsibilities:
- Identify and control risks by conducting training, managing safety systems and tracking key performance indicators (KPIs).
- Create, implement and enforce safety programs, policies and procedures.
- Build relationships with employees, foster a strong safety culture, and be a safety mentor and leader.
- Perform documentation, procedural and workplace audits.
Regulatory general responsibilities:
- Ensure company meets regulatory standards by overseeing safety training based on requirements.
- Secure company’s applicable permits and confirm compliance with those permits through sampling and testing.
- Coordinate between agencies and the company, accompany agency representatives during audits, and initiate corrective actions after agency reports.
Regardless of your official job title, as a safety professional you will be seen as a subject matter expert on safety and health, Roberts says.
“We will never know everything, and we should always continue to learn,” he adds.
The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Safety Professional
Like any career, there are aspects you might enjoy and aspects that might frustrate you, at least until you can get a handle on them. Roberts outlined a list of pros and cons:
- High demand for safety professionals and strong growth potential
- Opportunity to make a difference by reducing injuries and helping employees daily
- Easily accessible, with a wide range of safety-related degree programs and a multitude of safety training organizations
- Engaging, because no two days are the same
- Hands-on, both in terms of opportunities to leave your desk and in developing programs that will have real-world impact
- Excellent salary
- Translatable knowledge and skills that can improve your personal life
- Stressful, because you are dealing with people’s safety and health — the stakes are high
- Mediation, often between the company and an employee or the company and a regulatory body, can mean dealing with pressure from multiple sides
- Continuous, and often rapid, change
- Potentially negative culture surrounding safety
- High expectations with a tight budget means prioritizing how money should be spent to prevent injuries and save lives
How to Get Started on the Safety Professional Path
There are several different ways to enter the safety profession, including transitioning within your current company or obtaining an associate’s, bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in safety.
But before committing to those long-term options, you can take individual classes in specific areas to test the waters. Professional organizations like ours offer frequent trainings and professional development programs.
Online groups and forums, such as those on Facebook and LinkedIn, are also great places to find other safety professionals, dig into their experiences and receive guidance.
Here are a few more ways to get hands-on experience with the safety profession before obtaining a full-time job.
- Apply for internships: “I highly suggest getting an internship with some hands-on experience, starting as early as you can,” he says. It’s especially important to experience different fields within the safety industry. “Construction safety is different from general industry or oil and gas,” he adds. “One or the other may not be for you.”
- Find a mentor: Whether it’s through a college or university, training programs or associations like ours, finding a mentor can give you an inside look at the profession and help you navigate your path. We offer student membership, and the Emerging Professionals in OSH Common Interest Group has a mentorship program that matches candidates with mentors.
- Volunteer at a nonprofit: Groups like Habitat for Humanity or other nonprofits may need volunteers with some safety training to help write a safety program or oversee safety on a project.
- Help at a friend’s or family member’s business: Roberts used the example of a small construction company that may not have a safety professional on staff, but may have a need for a safety program, risk assessment or job safety analysis.
- Shadow a safety professional: Whether you know someone, or you simply call a company and ask, shadowing a professional for a time gives you a window into the role.
A Final Tip for Determining Your Safety Career Path
If you’ve decided safety is the right field for you, but you’re not sure where to move forward within it, Roberts recommends considering your end goal.
Do you have a title- or salary-based goal? Is there one industry you prefer over another? Or are your goals about personal fulfillment, helping others or making an impact on the world? These are all possible with safety and health positions, he says.
“Everything is flexible; maybe you choose one goal and start towards it only to later decide it’s not where you want to be. Take a step back, reflect, choose another goal and set off in that direction,” he says.
With the current demand for safety professionals and the education, training and support available, the safety and health field is ripe with opportunity.
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