Taking Safety to the Next Level

Skillsets and Mindsets

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Safety is big business. An entire industry has formed to help workplaces meet stringent safety requirements and keep their workers healthy. From private consultants to personal protective equipment manufacturers, this industry has an answer to every employer’s safety needs.
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The safety industry works to keep employees and the environment free from harm. Safety professionals rely on safety science, a relatively new concept that entails a range of disciplines, from psychology, physiology, and physics, to health, hygiene, management, and education. “Safety science is a twenty-first century term for everything that goes into the prevention of accidents, illnesses, fires, explosions and other events which harm people, property and the environment,” according to the Career Guide to the Safety Profession, which is co-produced by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP) and the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Foundation.

The safety industry kicked into gear when the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act passed in 1970. Loose concepts and guidelines became law—and workplaces scrambled to meet the new expectations. With the swipe of a pen, an entire industry was born. Additional, more stringent legislation followed over the next decades, cementing the need for safety professionals.

Safety regulations also boosted related sectors that help employers meet federal safety requirements. Take the personal protective equipment (PPE) industry, for instance. Its market size is predicted to reach $67.6 billion by 2023, according to a new research report by Global Market Insights, Inc. In the United States alone, the PPE market raked in $12.5 billion in profits in 2015, and these numbers are expected to grow as the industry continues to develop newer and better solutions.

Safety as a career
As the safety industry has grown, so have the academic expectations for future industry insiders. In a recent Industrial Safety & Hygiene News (ISHN) reader survey, only four percent of respondents had earned no more than a high school degree. Thirty percent of respondents had a four-year college degree, while 23 percent held a graduate degree.

Many safety professionals major in occupational safety and health or a related subject during college. These students will typically take a range of natural science, social science, and business courses, as well as participate in internships in order to secure a job in the safety industry upon graduation. Specific subjects of study often include chemistry, biology, physics, environmental sciences, engineering, ergonomics, business management, psychology, and physiology.

Studying safety science in college is certainly not a requirement to have a career in the field. Nearly half of safety professionals surveyed by ISHN reported that they majored in a subject other than safety, industrial hygiene, environment, or health.

On the flip side, certain career paths within the field require graduate degrees. Safety professionals with doctoral degrees typically work in research laboratories and universities. Safety professionals with advanced degrees also serve as expert witnesses in court or write textbooks on the subject.

Academic requirements for safety professionals have become increasingly stringent. This is in large part because the role of safety professionals has expanded dramatically and become more complex over the last 25 years, the Career Guide to the Safety Profession reports. The expansion can be traced back to corporate downsizing in the 1990s. Companies had to make due with a smaller staff, which meant that employees in charge of safety had to widen their responsibilities. In addition to traditional health and safety duties, many safety professionals began to handle environmental issues as well as security. In the early 2000s, their roles expanded even further to deal with terrorism. And, as globalization became more prominent during that decade, safety professionals added natural disasters and disease to their repertoire.

Safety professionals have to take on a lot, but they tend to be well compensated for their efforts. In 2015, the median base salary for Safety, Health, and Environmental (SH&E) professionals was $98,000, according to the 2015 SH&E Industry Salary Survey conducted by BCSP, ASSE, American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH), Alliance of Hazardous Materials Professionals (AHMP), American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), and Institute of Hazardous Materials Management (IHMM). A quarter of SH&E professionals earned between $100,000 and $124,000. Only six percent of the surveyed respondents reported earning less than $60,000.

In addition to their salaries, the SH&E Industry Salary Survey revealed that the vast majority of full-time safety professionals enjoy robust benefits packages with health insurance, (91 percent), dental insurance (83 percent), retirement savings plans (81 percent), vision care (78 percent), and/or group life insurance (77 percent).

Safety professionals work in both the public and private sectors across a variety of industries. The government is a substantial source of employment at the local, state, and federal levels. Environmental regulations have recently created new opportunities at the state and local levels and environmental protection officers are in demand. These safety professionals enforce regulations related to contamination, protected areas, waste disposal, and other environmental concerns. They also lead conservation projects and manage federally funded decontamination projects. Many safety professionals working for the government act as inspectors and accident investigators. They travel from site to site and determine if safety regulations are being properly upheld.

Industrial hygienists also travel from site to site in search of potential hazards or violations. But these specialists are hired by private industry to avoid violations rather than to report them. By reducing violations, companies avoid costly fines as well as potential accidents, which drive up insurance costs in addition to causing human suffering. Many insurers offer safety consulting to their policyholders in order to lower their risk of loss from on-the-job injuries.

Manufacturing, mining, petrochemical, and other types of heavy industry are dependent on knowledgeable safety professionals to keep their workers safe in the field or on the factory floor. However, many companies within these fields no longer hire these employees directly; private consulting and contracting has become increasingly popular within the industry in order to cut costs and increase efficiency. Even businesses without heavy machinery or other obvious risks can benefit from one of these safety consultants. For instance, a consultant can help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome among white-collar employees or guide them on how to incorporate exercise into an otherwise sedentary workday at the office.

Ergonomists are one type of safety specialist that works across both white-collar and blue-collar industries. They analyze the work environment in offices as well as factories and advise on how to improve employee comfort and safety. Even small changes can make a substantial difference in employee satisfaction and productivity. From office chairs with better back support to more natural light or easier-to-operate machinery, ergonomists advise on ways to make any workplace a more pleasant place to work. Employers benefit from increased productivity and employee longevity as well as from fewer workers compensation claims.

According to a 2008 BCSP salary study, the highest percentage of SH&E professionals work in manufacturing (38.3 percent), while 18.8 percent work in insurance and finance, 10 percent are employed in professional, scientific and tech services, 8.8 percent in public administration and government, 8.4 percent in construction, 5.2 percent in mining, and 5.1 percent in utilities.

After years of expansion, the safety industry will likely remain strong even as companies shift their activities overseas, the Career Guide to the Safety Profession reports. When manufacturers move their plants to other countries, responsible companies still need to maintain safe operations. And, because many foreign countries have slacker safety standards than the United States or Canada, these companies often hire American or Canadian safety professionals to oversee international operations.

Furthermore, no matter how many manufacturers relocate abroad, there will be a demand for safety professionals in the United States and Canada as long as governments continue to regulate industry. It’s a safe bet that regulations are not going anywhere anytime soon, so the safety industry is here to stay—and so are the safe work environments that it promotes.

November 19, 2017, 3:41 AM EST