How to Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

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An occupational safety professional checks a work site.A delivery driver gets in a wreck, a construction worker falls off of a scaffold and a plant worker comes into contact with a toxic chemical — these are real incidents that really can happen in the workplace. However, some careers are far more dangerous than others. Jobs involving transportation, construction, or exposure to harmful materials pose the highest risk to employees, according to Industrial Safety & Hygiene News.

When employers proactively maintain safe working conditions, regularly address potential threats and keep their workforce up to date on best safety practices, it decreases the likelihood of employees getting sick or injured. Additionally, a safe workplace leads to other benefits, such as boosted morale, reduced turnover, and increased productivity.

On the other hand, failing to maintain a safe workplace can lead to an at-risk workforce, potential fines and lawsuits, and decreased revenue. Companies that take the health and safety of their employees seriously have health and safety specialists on staff. They’re in charge of ensuring that the companies they work for are using the best health and safety practices and following state, local, and federal safety regulations.

Individuals who are interested in how to become an occupational health and safety specialist should consider the education, certification, and experience requirements to enter the field.

What Is an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist?

Every workplace can be dangerous in its own way. When workers are put at risk or regularly face situations that put them in harm’s way, companies must proactively address the issues to keep their employees safe. Companies rely on the expertise of occupational health and safety specialists to ensure that they’re remaining compliant with health and safety protocols.

Although this role varies slightly by company, an occupational health and safety specialist typically performs the following duties:

  • Serves as the resident authority on workplace health and safety and continually educates employees
  • Demonstrates the correct way to use personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety equipment
  • Collects information about the work environment, equipment and procedures to determine their compliance with health and safety regulations
  • Creates detailed reports of findings for review by company leadership that are accompanied by an action plan
  • Implements changes in processes and/or the workplace environment that aim to improve health and safety and protect workers from dangerous situations and hazardous materials
  • Evaluates and implement health and safety programs in the workplace
  • Serves as the lead investigator when a safety incident or accident occurs; uses information collected to learn how it could’ve been prevented

Whatever the work setting, occupational health and safety specialists are always on the lookout for environmental and/or physical factors that may be affecting the safety, health, comfort, and performance of employees. This holds equally true whether they’re in an office building, on a construction site, or in a warehouse. These specialists typically monitor factors such as ventilation, potentially hazardous materials, equipment, lighting, and excessive noise.

Most occupational health and safety specialists work for the government (21%), followed by manufacturing (16%) and construction (13%), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Steps to Become an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

Becoming an occupational health and safety specialist involves a well-defined series of steps, starting with education.

Step 1: Earn a Degree

The role requires candidates to have earned at least a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety or another relevant field, according to the BLS. A Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety, for example, can help individuals gain foundational knowledge and develop skills for identifying workplace risks, complying with policies and regulations, and implementing safety programs.

Some positions may even require an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in health physics or industrial hygiene.

Step 2: Obtain Certification

To supplement their education and stand out to potential employers, many occupational health and safety specialists pursue certifications relevant to their chosen field. For example, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals offers four certifications:

  • Occupational Hygiene and Safety Technician (OHST)
  • Associate Safety Professional (ASP)
  • Certified Safety Professional (CSP)
  • Construction Health and Safety Technician (CHST)

Additionally, the American Board of Industrial Hygiene offers the Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) credential. Although certifications are optional, many employers prefer their candidates to be certified occupational health and safety specialists because it demonstrates they have a specific skill set and knowledge base.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

Finally, occupational health and safety specialists must undergo training. Significantly, new hires might start out as technicians, and then work their way up the ladder to specialists.

During this time, they should focus on becoming proficient in health and safety protocols and procedures, learn how to recognize hazards and conduct tests, and develop their problem-solving skills. Technicians who have the right education, experience, and certifications will improve their chances of being promoted to the role of occupational health and safety specialist.

Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Salary and Job Growth

An occupational health and safety specialist’s salary was approximately $74,900 in 2021, according to the BLS. The lowest earners made less than $44,000, while the highest earners made as much as $118,500. Salaries are influenced by education, experience, region, company, and other factors.

The role of occupational health and safety specialist is projected to grow by 5% (over 132,000 positions), which is on par with the national average for all occupations. The data supports occupational health and safety careers as being a solid choice in the long term.

Develop the Skills for a Career in Occupational Health and Safety

An occupational health and safety specialist is the professional whom companies rely on to proactively identify threats and risks in the workplace and implement timely solutions. Occupational health and safety specialists strive to build a culture of safety through research, education, and problem-solving. Especially in industries such as construction, transportation, and manufacturing, perhaps no other role is more important.

Gaining the knowledge to become an occupational health and safety specialist starts with formal education, such as an online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety from Eastern Kentucky University. In this program, students will learn about construction safety, corporate compliance, the development of safety programs, and much more in an online learning environment led by instructors with private and public sector experience.

Find out more about the benefits of earning your degree, so you can begin learning about occupational safety concepts and how to implement them. 

Recommended Readings

What Is Occupational Safety and Why Does It Matter?

Safety Audit vs. Safety Inspection: What Are the Differences?

Safety Professionals: Demand in the U.S. 


Board of Certified Safety Professionals, What We Do

Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, Top 25 Most Dangerous Jobs in the United States

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA Penalties

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians

Virginia Health Workforce Development Authority, Occupational Health and Safety Specialist