What Is Environmental Health and Safety?

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Factory workers wearing protective gear and looking at a tablet. Protecting the environment is a critical component for a properly functioning future. Each year delivers fresh examples of human activities and environmentally inefficient practices creating lasting and potentially catastrophic effects on our planet, from climate change to pollution. This looming crisis has inspired many people — particularly younger generations who are new to the workforce or preparing to enter it — to seek out ways to do their part to support the planet’s health. Some do so by pursuing careers in sustainability or related fields, such as environmental health and safety.

Understanding what environmental health and safety is requires some differentiation between careers in the field. 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 protect the workforce and our planet.

This satisfying role is usually filled by candidates with a specialized education that prepares them for the challenges they can expect to face on the job. An education such as a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety can provide this background and positions graduates for success in various occupational health and safety career opportunities.

Occupational Health Safety and the Environment

Occupational health safety is a branch of public health that concentrates on finding vulnerabilities and creating strategic solutions to keep workers safe from injury and illness. The field’s focus encompasses a wide range of concepts, from personal issues pertaining to violence prevention to broader aspects, such as epidemiology and toxicology.

While the concept initially focused its energy on factories and other conditions associated with manual labor, it has since expanded to include all occupations. This expansion has led to much overlap between occupational health safety and the environment. Those in occupational health safety roles still concentrate on issues pertaining to workers, but they also work to find solutions to environmental hazards that can potentially cause short- and long-term effects to employees, such as extreme heat and toxic pollutants.

Environmental Health and Safety Examples

The work of occupational health and safety professionals can concurrently create a space that protects workers and the environment in several ways. The following tasks demonstrate environmental health and safety in action:

1. 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 a property. If problems are found, the safety manager ensures 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 of this is the gas leak in Visakhapatnam, India, that killed 12 people and impacted roughly hundreds of nearby residents.

While the poor systematic design of the tank that leaked the gas was cited for the incident, it was expressly noted by an investigation committee that subpar safety protocols, lacking safety awareness, and insufficient emergency response procedures exacerbated the situation. The committee also noted that additional safety measures, such as alarms, could have alerted those in surrounding areas of the impending danger.

This combination of issues resulted in an incident that spewed toxic materials into the air, leading to tragic results on a personal and an environmental scale. Ensuring plant safety is a large part of what environmental health and safety is can help minimize the risk of such events.

2. Electrical and Fire Safety

Closely related to plant maintenance is the task of electrical and fire safety. Fires of all kinds can cause significant and costly damage in numerous ways. The U.S. Fire Administration, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) oversees, recorded over 3,700 deaths and nearly $15 billion in losses due to fires in 2019, the final year the organization compiled data before the pandemic. These fires can also create a negative environmental impact, as each incident dumps 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. Some of the more common hazards are:

  • Clutter and blocked aisles
  • Faulty equipment
  • Electrical issues
  • Accumulated clutter
  • Unmanaged hot work, such as welding

The safety manager should identify any hazards like these that are present in the facility, and 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 employees and the environment.

3. 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 about hazardous chemicals are generally set at higher levels, safety managers are 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 employees are correctly handling and disposing of chemicals.

In this context, environmental health and safety is mostly used to protect employees. However, safe chemical management has much bigger implications, including the potential ecological impacts of accidents. When this does not occur, the results can have devastating short- and long-term consequences.

A recent example of this occurred at a textile mill in India, where six people died and 29 more were hospitalized after inhaling toxic gas. The source of the gas was an illegal dump of chemical waste into a creek, which was speculated to cause a toxic reaction. The result not only resulted in immediate tragedy but also demonstrated how mishandling of chemical waste can produce profoundly negative changes in the environment.

To avoid this kind of catastrophe, it is vital for operational health and safety professionals to develop a strong communication strategy that leaves no room for misinterpretation or ambiguity. Good performance on this task will lead to positive results, large and small, for the workers and the environment.

4. 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 that employees do not face unacceptably high exposure to harmful substances in the workplace. Such substances may include the following, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS):

  • 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.

Promote Environmental Health and Safety

As the world increases its focus on protecting the planet, occupational safety professionals will be key to ensuring this focus yields forward progress. By overseeing a safe work environment for everyone, these individuals can also ensure their workplaces don’t make dangerous contributions that could harm the Earth. For people seeking to take a “big picture” approach to workplace safety, this role may be an ideal fit.

Eastern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety is designed to show students how to maximize employee workplace safety. Industry-experienced safety professionals guide students through occupational safety courses, covering topics such as Construction Safety, Emergency Management and Workplace Risk Factors. Explore the program and find out how to promote environmentalism in occupational health and safety.

Recommended Reading

Occupational Safety and Sustainability

Safety Training for the Millennial Generation

When Recycling Becomes a Health and Safety Hazard


Chemscape Safety Technologies, Chemical Management Guide

CNN, “India Toxic Gas Leak Kills 6 After Illegal Chemical Dump”

The Indian Express, “Poor Safety Protocol, Breakdown of Emergency Response Led to Visakhapatnam Gas Leak: Panel”

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change: A Threat to Human Wellbeing and Health of the Planet. Taking Action Now Can Secure Our Future”

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Environmental Agents

Occupational Health & Safety, “Eliminate 10 Fire Hazards That May Be in Plain Sight”

Reuters, “Pollution Causing More Deaths Than COVID, Action Needed, Says U.N. Expert”

Travelers, “Fire Hazards in the Workplace”

Truity, Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

U.S. Department of Labor, Chemical Hazards and Toxic Substances

U.S. Department of Labor, Sustainability in the Workplace

U.S. Fire Administration, U.S. Fire Statistics

Verywell Health, “What Is Occupational Health and Safety?”