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Occupational Health and Safety Specialist
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Job Description

Job CategoryArchitecture & Engineering

Job DescriptionOccupational health and safety specialists, also known as safety and health practitioners or occupational health and safety inspectors, help prevent harm to workers, property, the environment, and the general public. They promote occupational health and safety within organizations in many ways, such as by advising management on how to increase worker productivity through raising morale and reducing absenteeism, turnover, and equipment downtime while securing savings on insurance premiums, workers’ compensation benefits, and litigation expenses.

Occupational health and safety specialists analyze work environments and design programs to control, eliminate, and prevent disease or injury caused by chemical, physical, radiological, and biological agents or ergonomic factors that involve the impact of equipment design on a worker’s comfort or fatigue. They may conduct inspections and inform the management of a business which areas may not be in compliance with State and Federal laws or employer policies, in order to gain their support for addressing these areas. They advise management on the cost and effectiveness of safety and health programs.

The specific responsibilities of occupational health and safety specialists vary by industry, workplace, and types of hazards affecting employees. In most settings, they initially focus on identifying hazardous conditions and practices. Sometimes they develop methods to predict hazards from experience, historical data, workplace analysis, and other information sources. Then they identify potential hazards in systems, equipment, products, facilities, or processes planned for use in the future. For example, they might uncover patterns in injury data that implicate a specific cause such as system failure, human error, incomplete or faulty decision making, or a weakness in existing policies or practices. After reviewing the causes or effects of hazards, they evaluate the probability and severity of accidents or exposures to hazardous materials that may result. Then they identify where controls need to be implemented to reduce or eliminate hazards and advise if a new program or practice is required. As necessary, they conduct training sessions for management, supervisors, and workers on health and safety practices and regulations to promote an understanding of a new or existing process. After implementation, they may monitor and evaluate the program’s progress, making additional suggestions when needed.

To ensure the machinery and equipment meet appropriate safety regulations, occupational health and safety specialists may examine and test machinery and equipment, such as lifting devices, machine guards, or scaffolding. They may check that personal protective equipment, such as masks, respirators, protective eyewear, or hard hats, is being used in workplaces according to regulations. They also check that hazardous materials are stored correctly. They test and identify work areas for potential accident and health hazards, such as toxic vapors, mold, mildew, and explosive gas-air mixtures, and help implement appropriate control measures, such as adjustments to ventilation systems. Their survey of the workplace might involve talking with workers and observing their work, as well as inspecting elements in their work environment, such as lighting, tools, and equipment.

To measure and control hazardous substances, such as the noise or radiation levels, occupational health and safety specialists prepare and calibrate scientific equipment. They must properly collect and handle samples of dust, gases, vapors, and other potentially toxic materials to ensure personal safety and accurate test results.

If an injury or illness occurs, occupational health and safety specialists help investigate unsafe working conditions, study possible causes, and recommend remedial action. Some occupational health and safety specialists and technicians assist with the rehabilitation of workers after accidents and injuries, and make sure they return to work successfully.
Frequent communication with management may be necessary to report on the status of occupational health and safety programs. Consultation with engineers or physicians also may be required.

Occupational health and safety specialists prepare reports including accident reports, Occupational Safety and Health Administration record-keeping forms, observations, analysis of contaminants, and recommendations for control and correction of hazards. They may prepare documents to be used in legal proceedings and give testimony in court proceedings. Those who develop expertise in certain areas may develop occupational health and safety systems, including policies, procedures, and manuals.

Specialists that concentrate in particular areas include environmental protection officers, ergonomists, health physicists, industrial hygienists, and mine examiners. Environmental protection officers evaluate and coordinate programs that impact the environment, such as the storage and handling of hazardous waste or monitoring the cleanup of contaminated soil or water. Ergonomists help ensure that the work environment allows employees to maximize their comfort, safety, and productivity. Health physicists help protect people and the environment from hazardous radiation exposure by monitoring the manufacture, handling, and disposal of radioactive material. Industrial hygienists examine the workplace for health hazards, such as worker exposure to lead, asbestos, pesticides, or communicable diseases. Mine examiners are technicians who inspect mines for proper air flow and health hazards such as the buildup of methane or other noxious gases.

Working ConditionsOccupational health and safety specialists and technicians work with many different people in a variety of environments. Their jobs often involve considerable fieldwork, and some travel frequently. Many occupational health and safety specialists and technicians work long and often irregular hours.

Occupational health and safety specialists and technicians may be exposed to many of the same physically strenuous conditions and hazards as industrial employees, and the work may be performed in unpleasant, stressful, and dangerous working conditions. They may find themselves in an adversarial role if the management of an organization disagrees with the recommendations for ensuring a safe working environment.

Salary RangeMedian annual earnings of occupational health and safety specialists were $62,300 in 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $47,500 and $77,900. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $35,900, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $93,600.

Most occupational health and safety specialists and technicians work in large private firms or for Federal, State, and local governments, most of which generally offer more generous benefits than smaller firms.