8 Environmental Health and Safety Careers You Should Consider

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Construction workers stand on a scaffolding, silhouetted against the sky.The work of environmental health and safety professionals is vital to protecting the planet, the public and employees in many industries. A carbon monoxide leak exposes workers to harmful toxins. An oil spill harms birds and fish. An equipment malfunction at a coal plant causes an explosion that sets off a massive wildfire, destroying acres of forest habitat. Environmental health and safety careers can prevent avoidable events like these.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the rate of workplace-related injuries and illnesses has plunged over the last few decades — from almost 11 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to less than 3 for every 100 workers in 2019. In addition, worker deaths have dropped from 38 per day to 15 per day as of 2019. Meanwhile, pollution levels have also dipped over roughly the same period.

Environmental health and safety careers are available in various industries, including manufacturing, government and the military. Heightened public interest in issues involving the environment is expected to increase demand for professionals in this field, creating opportunities for individuals with varying levels of experience. A bachelor’s degree in occupational safety is often the first step on the path to a career in environmental health and safety.

Safety Officer

Safety officers play a critical role when it comes to environmental health and safety in the workplace. They oversee the adoption and implementation of an organization’s health and safety protocols and hold others accountable for adhering to them. They have a wide range of responsibilities that include:

  • Policy enforcement. In addition to establishing safety policies and procedures, safety officers ensure employees follow those rules and, when appropriate, report any misconduct that could result in accidents or penalties.
  • Performing audits and inspections. Safety officers regularly conduct audits and inspections to identify potential workplace hazards and observe workers to make sure they’re following safety standards.
  • Investigating accidents. Any time a workplace safety incident happens — be it a serious injury or a minor issue — a safety officer must investigate to determine why it occurred and what steps should be taken to prevent it from happening again.
  • Ensuring compliance. All companies must maintain compliance standards set forth by various agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Safety officers make sure companies meet these standards and submit the required forms and reports. They also make sure OSHA compliance posters, informing employees of their rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, are displayed in the workplace.
  • Training employees. One of the most important parts of a safety officer’s job is training employees on company protocols, best practices and OSHA standards. OSHA requires employers to conduct safety training, and safety officers typically lead this effort.

How to Become a Safety Officer

Becoming a safety officer typically requires some combination of education and on-the-job experience. Most employers require safety officers to have at least a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety or a related field, while a master’s degree may be necessary for senior positions. Some companies will provide on-the-job training if an applicant has an associate degree. As with other environmental health and safety careers, the salary for a safety officer varies depending on the industry and the employee’s level of experience. According to April 2021 PayScale data, the median annual salary for the position is around $59,400.

EHS Consultant

An EHS consultant, or environmental health and safety consultant, advises companies on how to minimize health and safety risks in the workplace. They may also provide guidance on environmental regulations. They work with companies to mitigate their environmental impact, ensuring compliance with all OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements.

An EHS consultant performs some of the same functions as a safety officer: performing inspections and audits, training employees, developing health and safety programs, and so on. However, a consultant acts as an independent third party as opposed to an in-house employee. Some companies hire EHS consultants on an as-needed basis, while others keep them on retainer — similar to an attorney — in order to continually improve their environmental health and safety programs.

Some consultants focus on the worker safety aspect of their jobs, while others may emphasize risk management for employers. A consultant can protect organizations from the negative consequences that stem from safety incidents, such as:

  • Workers’ compensation claims
  • Employee turnover
  • Lost productivity
  • Lawsuits
  • Regulatory citations and penalties

How to Become an EHS Consultant

The background needed to become an EHS consultant is similar to other environmental health and safety careers. Employers typically require at least a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety, industrial hygiene, environmental science or a similar subject, along with some work experience. Many consultants also hold one or more safety certifications, such as Certified Safety Professional or Qualified Environmental Professional.

According to PayScale, EHS consultants have salaries that range from around $48,000 to $100,000, with a median salary of around $65,200 as of April 2021.

Industrial Hygienist

Industrial hygienists are vital to environmental health and safety, protecting people in the workplace and the community from hazardous materials like asbestos, lead and radon gas. Their job may also entail addressing other health hazards in the workplace, like illness or repetitive stress injuries.

An industrial hygienist is responsible for anticipating and identifying potential risks and making recommendations to minimize them. They have a number of responsibilities, including:

  • Conducting routine inspections to identify workplace hazards
  • Developing action plans to mitigate health and safety risks
  • Training employees on workplace safety
  • Investigating workplace accidents, injuries and deaths
  • Ensuring personal protective equipment is available and in good condition

Industrial hygienists work in a variety of settings. Some are government inspectors who ensure that businesses are following workplace safety guidelines and best practices for handling hazardous materials. Others work in the private sector at factories or construction sites where they identify safety risks.

How to Become an Industrial Hygienist

Industrial hygienist positions typically require at least a bachelor’s degree. Many industrial hygienists hold a bachelor of science or bachelor of arts in industrial hygiene, chemical or mechanical engineering, chemistry or industrial safety. Industrial hygienists must understand the effect chemicals and substances in the workplace have on the human body and the environment. A master’s degree and certification, such as Certified Industrial Hygienist certification, are not required but are helpful for career advancement.

Industrial hygienists have salaries that range from around $48,000 to $118,000, with a median annual salary of around $77,200, according to May 2021 PayScale data.

Environmental Science and Protection Technician

Environmental science and protection technicians are more focused on the effects of pollution on the natural world than professionals in other environmental health and safety careers. They monitor the environment and investigate sources of pollution and contamination, especially those impacting public health.

The job description for an environmental science and protection technician varies depending on the industry. Most technicians work for consulting firms, governments or testing laboratories. Their duties may include:

  • Inspecting public places and businesses for environmental, health or safety hazards
  • Setting up and maintaining equipment used to monitor pollution levels, such as sensors that measure smokestack emissions
  • Collecting and analyzing environmental samples (air, soil, water) for the presence of pollutants
  • Verifying regulatory compliance

How to Become an Environmental Science and Protection Technicians

Environmental science and protection technicians typically need at least an associate degree in environmental science, environmental health or public health. The roles and responsibilities of technicians often vary depending on the environments and industries in which they work, so some jobs don’t require postsecondary education and others may require a bachelor’s degree. Regardless of education level, aspiring environmental science and protection technicians must have a background in the natural sciences, with coursework in chemistry, biology, geology and physics.

The median annual salary of environmental science and protection technicians was $46,850 in May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those working in local government and engineering services were the highest earners.

Due to heightened public interest in environmental issues, employment of environmental science and protection technicians is projected to grow by 8% — double the national average projected for all occupations — from 2019 to 2029, the BLS reported.

Environmental Health and Safety Manager

The job description for an environmental health and safety manager is similar to that for jobs of professionals in other environmental health and safety careers. Like safety officers, EHS managers typically work in-house for organizations to spearhead their health and safety programs.

The National Association for Environmental, Health, Safety, and Sustainability Management describes environmental health and safety managers as the “environmental stewards of the corporate world.” They protect the safety of workers and the public and ensure companies are complying with safety standards. They also make sure organizations follow environmental regulations and help establish policies to minimize the organization’s impact on the environment, identifying potential hazards and recommending mitigation measures.

An EHS manager is a leader in the field of environmental health and safety. By combining their technical expertise with management skills, they help develop, implement and enforce corporate policy designed to protect people and the environment.

How to Become an Environmental Health and Safety Managers

Environmental health and safety managers typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety, engineering or a similar field of study. Some positions may also require a master’s degree.

To more effectively lead organizations in their environmental health and safety practices, managers may also take courses in ergonomics, writing and communications, and accident prevention. On-the-job training and certification are also critical steps on the EHS manager path.

The BLS doesn’t provide specific salary information for environmental health and safety managers. However, they reported that the median annual salary of occupational health and safety specialists — whose duties overlap with those of EHS managers — was $76,340 as of May 2020. Health and safety engineers, meanwhile, whose role at an organization also resembles that of an EHS manager, had a median salary of $94,240.

Air Quality Specialist

An air quality specialist focuses on protecting the environment and public health from the negative impacts of air pollutants, such as lung cancer, emphysema, organ damage and possible birth defects. An air quality specialist’s work may involve testing air samples for contamination, advising policymakers on measures to reduce air pollution or enforcing vehicle or factory emissions standards.

In addition to these duties, the role of an air quality specialist typically includes the following responsibilities:

  • Collecting and compiling environmental data from air samples for analysis
  • Analyzing samples and other information to identify and assess environmental hazards
  • Developing plans to prevent and control air pollutants
  • Providing guidance to government officials, businesses and the public on environmental hazards and health risks

Many air quality specialists work for the government, ensuring that regulations are followed. Others work at consulting firms that help businesses comply with regulations and policies. Regardless of industry, they must be familiar with governmental regulations concerning air quality, such as the Clean Air Act, National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants and New Source Performance Standards (NSPS).

With nearly 82 million Americans living in areas with air pollution levels above EPA standards, air quality specialists are among those with the most important environmental health and safety careers.

How to Become an Air Quality Specialist

Most air quality specialist positions require at least a bachelor’s degree in environmental science or a related field, such as geosciences or engineering. Coursework in biology, chemistry and physics will provide a broad approach to the natural sciences that’s essential for environmental specialists. Courses in environmental policy and regulation may also be beneficial. Those looking to advance in the field may want to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree.

Environmental scientists and specialists had a median annual salary of $73,230 as of May 2020, according to the BLS. Those who worked for the federal government made the most, with a median salary of $103,180.

Due partly to heightened public interest in environmental hazards, the BLS projects employment of environmental scientists and specialists will grow 8% from 2019 to 2029, twice as much as the average rate projected for all occupations.

Water Treatment Specialist

Water treatment specialists play a crucial role in public health by making sure people have access to clean water. They install and maintain water purification equipment and analyze water samples to check for contaminants. Contaminated water can transmit diseases like cholera, typhoid and polio and is estimated to cause nearly half a million deaths worldwide each year.

Some figures from the World Health Organization underscore just how important the work of water treatment specialists is:

  • Worldwide, 785 million people lack a basic drinking water service.
  • Globally, 2 billion people use a drinking water service contaminated with feces.
  • By 2025, half of the global population will be living in water-stressed areas.

Water treatment specialists may work for local governments or private manufacturing companies. They are also often employed by the U.S. Army. Like their private sector counterparts, these specialists aid in or supervise the installation and operation of water purification equipment, ensuring that safe drinking water is available for both soldiers and people in the area where the Army is deployed. They may also perform water quality analysis and assist in reconnaissance and site preparation in advance of installation.

How to Become a Water Treatment Specialist

The background needed to become a water treatment specialist is similar to that of other environmental specialists. Coursework in the natural sciences is critical and a college degree is beneficial, though not always necessary, which makes it a great entry-level job for people interested in a career in environmental health and safety. Students interested in a specialist position may want to take specialized courses in hydrology, waste management or a similar subject.

Water treatment specialists in the Army are required to undergo basic combat and other training, with their time split between the classroom and the field.

The BLS doesn’t provide salary information on water treatment specialists specifically, but in general environmental scientists and specialists had a median salary of $73,230 as of May 2020. The salary range for these positions can vary greatly depending on the industry and the employee’s experience level. The highest 10% of earners made more than $130,000, according to the BLS.

OSHA Compliance Assistance Specialist

Established in 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for ensuring safe working conditions for workers through the creation and enforcement of standards. All organizations are responsible for following these standards to protect their employees and the public, and also to avoid costly penalties.

An OSHA compliance assistance specialist provides guidance to organizations about OSHA standards and how to adhere to them. Organizations can request help directly from OSHA for assistance in meeting its standards. Compliance assistance specialists are available for seminars, workshops and speaking events.

Compliance assistance specialists also promote and help implement OSHA’s various cooperative programs, which provide additional assistance for organizations to promote worker safety. These programs include the Voluntary Protection Programs, the Strategic Partnership Program and the Alliance Program. These services are provided by OSHA free of charge.

How to Become an OSHA Compliance Assistance Specialist

The path to become an OSHA compliance assistance specialist closely follows that of positions in other environmental health and safety careers. A bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety or a related field is generally required. Coursework in subjects like occupational safety management, writing and communications, and industrial hygiene is also beneficial.

Specialists should have a comprehensive understanding of OSHA and other regulations. Work experience and training in the field is also essential to understanding the specific standards and rules governing different work environments, from factories to restaurants.

The median annual salary of occupational health and safety specialists was $76,340 as of May 2020, while that of occupational health and safety technicians was $53,340, according to the BLS.

Choosing a Career in Environmental Health and Safety

The work of environmental health and safety professionals is crucial to protecting workers, communities and the environment. Whether your interests lie in worker safety or environmental health, you can choose from many different career paths in this field, with an abundance of entry-level roles and leadership positions available.

Individuals interested in becoming a leader in the effort to protect workers and the environment through a career in environmental health and safety can explore Eastern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety program to learn more about this vital field.

With courses that include Safety and Health Program Management, Industrial Hygiene and Introduction to Environmental Health Science, students can expand their knowledge and learn skills that will help them achieve their professional goals to safeguard us and our world.

Recommended Readings

How to Conduct a Job Hazard Analysis

Bridging the Generation Gap in Workplace Safety Culture

5 Common Environmental Hazards in the Workplace


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