The opportunities for safety professionals are expected to continue growing over the next several years at a rate higher than most occupations. In fact, jobs for occupational safety and health technicians are expected to grow over 10% through 2026, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Openings both for health and safety engineers and occupational safety and health specialists will grow over 8%, the BLS predicted. Employment growth for all occupations is only expected to grow 7.4%.
Due to the projected job growth, along with other developments, government agencies and professional safety organizations have concerns about the future of the field that include:
- Strong economic activity that’s expected to create new opportunities for safety and health professionals;
- A “graying” workforce, with a wave of retirements expected over the next several years;
- Changing demographics in the overall labor pool and a need to develop a professional safety workforce that reflects the diversity and inclusion of workers as a whole; and
- Legislative efforts that would eliminate or limit the acceptance of professional safety certifications.
Commercial and residential construction, as well as infrastructure projects, will fuel construction industry growth, leading to an increased need for safety professionals well versed in construction-specific hazards and controls. Construction activity is expected to grow by 2.7% annually through 2026, according to the BLS.
The bureau predicts there will be a growing need for professionals in the following occupations:
- Health and safety engineers, whose current median salary is $89,130 and who design systems and develop procedures to protect workers from illness and injury, as well as protect property from damage;
- Occupational health and safety specialists, whose median salary is $73,020 and who investigate accidents and near-miss incidents to identify their root causes and inspect and evaluate workplaces, equipment, and practices to ensure that they follow government regulations and industry consensus safety standards; and
- Occupational health and safety technicians, whose median salary is $50,780 and who usually work with occupational health and safety specialists, collecting data for analysis by specialists and then implementing and monitoring the programs that specialists develop.
While health and safety engineer and occupational health and safety specialist positions usually require a bachelor’s degree, positions for occupational health and safety technicians usually only require a high school diploma or equivalent.
While the growing number of future vacancies is well documented, the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) believes the United States already is experiencing a shortage of safety professionals. The AIHA expects the gap between safety and health vacancies and the number of trained safety professionals to continue to widen as current professionals retire.
As a part of its public policy agenda announced earlier this year, the AIHA is taking the following steps:
- Urging policymakers to significantly increase funding for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Education and Research Centers (ERCs);
- Encouraging middle and secondary school career counselors, teachers, and other personnel to make students aware of career opportunities in the environment, health, and safety field; and
- Supporting programs to get environment, health, and safety professionals into elementary, middle-level, and secondary school classrooms to talk about career opportunities.
NIOSH is required under the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970 to ensure a continuing supply of trained safety professionals is available. The OSH Act created NIOSH, as well as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The institute awards grants to universities that focus on occupational safety and health training, research training, education, and outreach. It looks for academic institutions that provide interdisciplinary graduate training, research training, continuing education, and outreach in industrial hygiene, occupational health nursing, occupational medicine residency, and occupational safety.
NIOSH considers research and research training integral parts of an ERC and looks for programs in which faculty and trainees conduct research into issues related to the National Occupational Research Agenda.
Changing Workforce—Changing Field
While the demographics of the overall workforce are changing, with growing numbers of women and minorities on the job, the safety field has been characterized as “male and pale.” In response, nearly all the professional safety organizations have diversity and inclusion programs:
- The AIHA has a Minority Special Interest Group to assist and support new or aspiring industrial hygienists from minority communities.
- The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) has several common interest groups: Blacks in Safety Excellence, Hispanic Safety Professionals, and Women in Safety Excellence (WISE) common interest groups, as well as an Emerging Professionals in OSH group.
- The National Safety Council has a Women’s Caucus and a Young Professionals division.
The ASSP’s WISE common interest group hosted a Women’s Workplace Safety Summit on October 29, 2018. The gathering of 50 experts focused on:
- Increasing the number of women who work in the field and reach corporate leadership positions;
- Improving female workers’ access to personal protective equipment (PPE) designed specifically for their different body types; and
- Addressing workplace violence, which disproportionately affects women and is consistently a leading cause of death for women in the workplace.
The gender gap in the safety field is wider than in the general workforce. While women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, they only make up 22% of professionals who have earned the certified safety professional designation, according to the Board of Certified Safety Professionals.
The disparity appears to be continuing among those being trained to become safety professionals.
The ASSP has approximately 1,460 active student members, and of those, 70% (1,011) are men and 30% (449) are women.
Employers need formal policies, programs, and measures for success to ensure they see gains in diversity and inclusion within their businesses, according to a report that came out of the Women’s Workplace Safety Summit.
Many safety professionals rely on a handful of certifications to demonstrate their professional competence to employers. The AIHA and other groups are trying to both curb legislative efforts to limit or deny recognition of safety professional certifications and lobby for legislation to recognize and protect the certifications they award.
The AIHA sees a wave of attempts in state legislatures to eliminate or limit protections for professional certifications.
The group believes the efforts are prompted by state legislators’ reaction to federal workplace safety and health regulations that they believe constrain job growth and economic opportunity. The AIHA believes state legislators mistakenly assume certified safety professionals are “part of the problem.”
Some states and territories even have attempted to create their own certification or licensing programs, bypassing private, third-party certification.
The professional organizations’ stance is that professional certifications like Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) and Certified Safety Professional (CSP) enable employers to find and hire qualified safety professionals.
The AIHA plans to take the following steps this year and in 2020:
- Encourage state and federal policymakers to retain or strengthen protections for professional certifications, such as the CIH and CSP.
- Push back against attempts to weaken protections.
- Educate state and federal policymakers on the benefits of professional certifications.
As part of the AIHA’s effort, the group has developed model legislation that state legislators can use to convey recognition of professional titles awarded by groups like the AIHA, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, and other professional bodies. Certifications recognized in the AIHA’s model bill include Certified Associate Industrial Hygienist, CIH, CSP, and Construction Health and Safety Technician.
Some employers may already be losing safety directors and managers due to retirement, and some already struggle to fill vacancies. Most will find it difficult to fill vacancies over the next several years.
Unfortunately, employers will have to rely on the government—through NIOSH’s ERC program—and safety professionals’ organizations to supply new safety and health professionals.
Concerned employers will want to monitor several developments:
- The “graying” of the safety workforce and the wave of ongoing retirements of environment, health, and safety managers;
- Private and public funding for college and university programs to educate and train replacement occupational safety and health professionals;
- Recruitment, training, and mentoring of women and minorities so employers can hire safety managers who look like and can relate to an increasingly diverse workforce; and
- State government recognition of professional safety certifications so employers can be assured they can find and hire qualified professionals.
To help ensure that women feel safe and comfortable to join the safety field and move up into their ranks, employers can:
- Develop or review workplace violence prevention programs to ensure they include gender-specific measures.
- Develop or maintain diversity programs to seek out female and minority candidates and ensure women and minority professionals move up through their ranks.
- Insist that PPE manufacturers and vendors make and stock PPE in a wider variety of cuts and sizes that properly fit women in the workplace.