How Can My Career in Occupational Health and Safety Help the Environment?

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Occupational health and safety professionals help protect the workforce and our planet.In today’s world, environmental awareness is a hot topic. With evidence mounting that human activities have lasting and potentially catastrophic effects on our planet, many people—particularly younger generations who are new to the workforce or preparing to enter it—care deeply about doing their part to support Earth’s health. Some care so much that they choose to build careers around it. Environmental health and safety managers, for instance, work full-time to monitor and minimize an organization’s environmental impact through various duties.

Occupational health and safety professionals have a slightly different focus. Their primary responsibility is to protect workers, not the environment. However, occupational health and safety and environmental issues overlap in certain areas. Just by doing their jobs, occupational health and safety professionals not only protect the workforce, they also help protect our planet.

This satisfying role is usually filled by candidates with specialized education that prepares them for the challenges they can expect to face on the job. Eastern Kentucky University’s bachelor degree in occupational health and safety provides this background and positions graduates for success in various occupational health and safety career opportunities.

Plant Maintenance

Keeping a safe, secure plant is the baseline for worker safety. Safety managers are not personally responsible for maintaining physical facilities and equipment, but they are usually expected to do regular inspections of the property. If problems are found, the safety manager ensures that they are fixed through whatever means necessary.

A well-maintained plant is obviously safer for workers, but it has environmental implications as well. A recent example from China, where records show that plant safety violations are an ongoing issue, illustrates the problem. A 2017 industrial explosion near Yancheng killed 10 people and spewed pollutants into the air. Inspectors were dispatched and discovered more than 200 safety hazards at the plant in question and others nearby, including leaks and drips, employees who didn’t understand safety procedures, and a lack of emergency shut-off valves on tanks carrying flammable chemicals.

In this case, occupational health and safety procedures were clearly allowed to slide, with disastrous results. Workers and the environment both suffered from this company’s poor safety management practices.

Electrical and Fire Safety

Closely related to plant maintenance is the task of electrical and fire safety. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fire departments across the United States respond to about 13 calls from business and industry every hour. Not only do these fires cause more than $13 billion in property damage and kill more than 3,000 people each year, they also dump smoke and other toxins into the environment.

Part of the occupational health and safety manager’s job is to identify hazards that could cause fires and related injuries. According to regulatory compliance professional Karen D. Hamel, some common hazards include:

  • Clutter and blocked aisles
  • Improper fire extinguishers
  • Defective smoke detectors
  • Electrical issues
  • Inadequate sprinkler systems
  • Open waste containers
  • Unmanaged hot work, such as welding

The safety manager should identify any hazards like these that are present in the facility, then make sure they are eliminated. This simple step, along with following local building and fire codes and putting plans in place to minimize potential fire risks, contributes to the well-being of both employees and the environment.

Chemical Management and Education

Chemical management is another area where occupational health and safety professionals can have an environmental impact. Although an organization’s overall policies regarding hazardous chemicals are generally set at higher levels, safety managers will be involved in the day-to-day implementation of the policies. They may, for instance, check to see that labels are correctly applied to containers. Safety managers may also ensure that employees are correctly handling and disposing of chemicals.

In this duty, the occupational health and safety professional is mostly concerned with protecting employees. However, safe chemical management has much bigger implications, including the potential environmental impacts of accidents.

Matt Adams, an environmental engineer and safety expert, explains it this way: “Whether it’s in the supply chain, during operations, during the delivery of services, or during the end use of a product, there is ongoing risk surrounding the use, storage, and data management of chemicals,” he says. “Being able to identify risks, handle them accordingly, and be proactive is vital to protect the organization, its employees, the public, and the environment.”

Whatever the plan may be, communicating it will generally fall to the occupational health and safety manager. Good performance on this task will lead to positive results, both small and big. “Ensure that good behavior is rewarded through positive reinforcement,” Adams suggests. “Being proactive about employee engagement can be the difference between a chemical management plan’s success and failure.”

Environmental Exposure

A final overlap between occupational health and safety and environmental issues occurs in the area of environmental exposure. The safety manager must make sure employees do not face unacceptably high exposure to harmful substances in the workplace. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, such substances may include, but are not limited to:

  • Poor-quality indoor air containing harmful gases, such as carbon monoxide, or particles, such as dust
  • Biological contaminants such as mold and mildew
  • Air pollution for outdoor workers
  • Pesticides and other agricultural toxins

Any of these substances can make people sick and hurt a business’s bottom line, so minimizing exposure is important. Doing so is good for employees, but beyond that, it can benefit the environment as well. Anything that reduces contaminants in the air, water, and soil contributes to our planet’s health—and by helping with this task on a micro level, occupational health and safety professionals can take pride in being part of the bigger solution.

Eastern Kentucky University’s Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety Program

Eastern Kentucky University’s online bachelor degree in occupational health and safety program is designed to show students how to maximize employee workplace safety. This degree can be a stepping stone to a position as a safety coordinator or many other occupational health and safety career opportunities.

Industry-experienced safety professionals guide students through occupational safety courses, covering modern trends in employee engagement and the establishment of a safety culture in the workplace. For more information, contact EKU today.

Recommended Reading:

Occupational Safety and Sustainability

When Recycling Becomes a Health and Safety Hazard

Safety Training for the Millennial Generation


Difference between environmental and occupational health – Lexology

Duties of occupational health and safety specialists – Truity

China industrial explosion – Associated Press

Electrical and fire safety – OH&S Online

Chemical management – OH&S Online

Environmental exposure – National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences