Workplace Safety, Health Professionals in Demand: OSHA Panel

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By Bruce Rolfsen

Sept. 21 — More employers may need to depend on safety and health staff members that don’t hold safety professional bachelor or higher degrees, members of an OSHA advisory panel heard Sept. 20.

The work group of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health is looking at what steps federal workplace safety agencies can take to encourage more students and people searching for new job paths to choose a workplace safety and health career.

Jim Johnson, the work group’s co-chair and vice president of workplace safety initiatives at the National Safety Council, said the panel will look at the roles played by “professionals,” those holding degrees and high-level certifications, and those working as “practitioners” and “technicians,” who have certifications but not degrees.

Safety programs also could be part of courses offered at business and engineering schools, Johnson said.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration head David Michaels requested the committee take on the project. “The occupational safety and health community is small in relation to the size of the field of public health overall and, like many professional disciplines, it has an aging workforce that is experiencing an increasing number of retirements,” Michaels told the committee in June 15 letter.

On Sept. 20, the committee’s work group began the first of at least three sessions talking with educators, professional organizations and safety groups about the current state of the career field and how to expand it.

‘Low Visibility.’

Among those offering advice was Wes Scott, director of consulting services for the National Safety Council.

One challenge is the profession’s low visibility. “People don’t know it is a career field,” Scott said.

Annette Braam, who helps oversees OSHA’s relationship with college training centers offering safety and health courses, said many people attending classes were doing other tasks at their employers when asked to take on safety and health roles.

Other students take classes because they are looking for new jobs and see safety and health as a growing career field, Braam said.

Scholarships Scarce

One of the challenges the training centers face is that state and federal scholarships may not be available because the courses result in certifications for graduates but don’t count as college credit hours, Braam said.

“Funding is absolutely an issue,” Braam said.

There are some college scholarships and federal assistance available for students seeking bachelor and higher degrees. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Education and Research Centers program supports programs at 18 universities. A few schools emphasize occupational health as part of their larger public health programs.

The most recent major study of the career field was released in 2011 by the institute. The survey estimated that as of 2010 there were more than 48,000 workplace safety professionals in the U.S. workforce. The review estimated that currently 59 percent of the workforce were primarily safety professionals, followed by industrial hygienists (15%), occupational health nursing (9%) and occupational medicine (3%). Of the safety professionals, 48 percent were age 50 or older, raising a question about how to fill the positions of professionals who retire.

The study estimated that universities would annually graduate about 2,640 new professionals, while employers would be looking to fill about 5,000 positions annually.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The 2011 National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health report is available at http://src.bna.com/iLv

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