Occupational Health Specialist in a hard hat

How to Become an Occupational Health Specialist

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Occupational Health Specialist in a hard hat

From scientific research labs to manufacturing plants to construction sites, many different work environments come with varying types of health and safety hazards. However, even in the most inherently dangerous work environments, many hazards can be minimized through preemptive actions like regular equipment inspection and proper safety procedures. That’s why it’s so important to have the proper oversight from people like occupational health specialists, who work to ensure all possible steps are being taken to protect workers, the environment, and the general public.

If you’re a detail-oriented person with a passion for protecting others from harm, becoming an occupational health specialist could be the ideal public health career for you. Occupational health specialists use their skills and knowledge to help prevent everything from individual injuries to large-scale disasters, and they earn an excellent living at the same time. In fact, we recently featured occupational health specialists on our list of the highest-paying public health jobs in 2021.

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming an occupational health specialist, including the educational requirements, necessary certifications, and some of the daily responsibilities you can expect on the job. You may also be pleasantly surprised at how long it takes to become an occupational health specialist—it’s a career that’s achievable in less time than you might think!

Not sure if becoming an occupational health specialist is the right career path for you? Click here to see our full list of the highest-paying public health jobs.

Occupational Health Specialist Definition

What is an Occupational Health Specialist?

Occupational health specialists are responsible for keeping workplaces and project sites safe from various health and safety hazards. By inspecting and analyzing processes, locations, and equipment, occupational health specialists help companies meet regulatory standards and develop adequate procedures to protect their workers as well as the surrounding environment.

Occupational Health Specialist: Job Description

What Does an Occupational Health Specialist Do?

Occupational health specialists spend much of their time visiting different work environments to collect data and perform inspections. They frequently use their findings to develop more effective and efficient safety plans or notify companies or regulatory organizations of issues requiring immediate attention. Occupational health specialists may also investigate incidents or accidents to determine their cause and identify how to prevent similar problems in the future.

Occupational Health Specialist Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of occupational health specialists include:

  • Inspecting and evaluating workplace equipment and procedures
  • Analyzing data and preparing written reports on their findings
  • Developing and implementing health and safety procedures to minimize risks to workers and the environment
  • Preparing and leading training programs on workplace safety
  • Investigating incidents to determine contributing factors and learn how to prevent future issues

Medical professionals teamwork

Occupational Health Specialist Skills

To thrive in a career as an occupational health specialist, you’ll need to be highly observant and detail-oriented. Signs of serious workplace risks aren’t always obvious, which means you’ll need to be on top of your game every time you conduct an inspection. Analytical skills are also important for occupational health specialists, as you’ll need to use the data you gather in the field to make effective recommendations on risk prevention. Physical stamina is also a requirement for many occupational health specialist jobs, as you’ll be spending lots of time on your feet and may sometimes need to climb or crawl through places like towers, tunnels, or catwalks.

Where Do Occupational Health Specialists Work?

If you’re the type who prefers time in the field to time in an office, becoming an occupational health specialist might be right up your alley. Many occupational health specialists travel and visit different job sites, from factories to laboratories to major construction projects. Occupational health specialist jobs are split relatively evenly between the public and private sectors. Government jobs are common for occupational health specialists, as are jobs with construction companies, manufacturers, scientific research organizations, and consulting firms. Most occupational health specialists work full-time and keep fairly standard business hours, though they may occasionally work weekends or irregular hours if emergencies arise.

Occupational Health Specialist Schooling & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become an Occupational Health Specialist?

What Degree Do You Need to Be an Occupational Health Specialist?

To gain a sufficient knowledge of workplace hazards and how to prevent them,  occupational health specialists typically need to earn at least a bachelor’s degree. While traditional bachelor’s degree programs require a full four years in school, some accelerated degree programs can be completed in just two and a half years. Some colleges offer bachelor’s degree programs focused specifically on occupational health, though other healthcare programs or even degrees in subjects like engineering, biology or chemistry can also prepare you for a career as an occupational health specialist (especially if you plan to pursue a postsecondary degree).

Many of the top-paying occupational health specialist jobs will prefer to hire candidates with a master’s degree in subjects like industrial hygiene, health physics, or a  Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. Many master’s degree programs require another two to three years in school, but just like your bachelor’s degree, you can finish your MPH degree much faster with an accelerated degree program. Some MPH programs can even be completed entirely online in as few as 63 weeks!

Like any other long-term goal, becoming an occupational health specialist can be broken down into a series of smaller steps, which can keep you on track and make the final outcome feel much more attainable.

Student completing the admissions process

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become an occupational health specialist:

1. Enroll in a Healthcare-Focused Bachelor’s Degree Program

The first step in your occupational health specialist training is enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program from an accredited college or university. For a future career as an occupational health specialist, you may want to consider a B.S. program focused on occupational health, or on adjacent fields like a Bachelor of Science in Health & Wellness or a Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Administration. Earning your bachelor’s degree will require dedication, focus, and plenty of study time, but it’s an achievable goal for just about anyone who’s willing to put in the work. For example, to enroll in any of the healthcare bachelor’s degree programs at Brookline College, all you’ll need is a high school diploma or GED, plus a passing score on a Scholastic Level Exam and a computer literacy exam.

2. Earn Your Bachelor of Science Degree

Before you can take responsibility for overseeing workplace health and safety programs, you’ll need to build a fundamental knowledge of human health and the issues surrounding it, as well as build your analytical and communication skills. That means earning a healthcare-focused bachelor’s degree can give you a major head start over other degree programs as you work toward a career as an occupational health specialist.

Like any bachelor’s degree program, you should expect to study a number of general-education subjects like math, literature, statistics, psychology, and communications. There’s a reason these types of classes are required of all bachelor’s degree students—they’ll make you a more well-rounded person and professional and help you discover new interests and talents.

As occupational health specialists are responsible for minimizing workplace hazards ranging from physical to psychological, you’ll need a well-rounded knowledge of human health, behavior, and anatomy. Any bachelor’s degree program with a concentration in healthcare will likely include courses in everything from kinesiology to psychology to courses focused on health education and healthcare administration. Other classes will teach you leadership and management principles and how to use data and statistics in the context of analyzing workplace safety hazards. All these skills are vital for occupational health specialists, who must be able to turn raw data into real-world recommendations on how to better protect workers, the environment, and the general public.

3. Earn Your Master of Public Health (MPH) Degree

While landing an entry-level occupational health job is certainly possible with only a bachelor’s degree, earning a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree can make you a much more attractive candidate for the top-paying occupational health specialist jobs. An MPH program is where you’ll polish the advanced planning and analytical skills you’ll need to build and implement entire workplace safety programs, which will make you even more valuable to potential employers.

Your public health master’s program will build upon your bachelor’s degree with courses like epidemiology and biostatistics, as well as courses that will give you an advanced knowledge of environmental and occupational health, and how to analyze and improve workplace safety programs and policies.

At the end of your MPH program, you’ll need to complete a capstone course where you’ll apply the statistical methods you’ve learned to some aspect of public health. This capstone will demonstrate your ability to interpret and analyze occupational health specialists’ data to understand workplace hazards and implement effective risk-reduction measures.

Laptop draped with a stethoscope

4. Stand Out by Earning Additional Certifications

Earning additional certifications from the Board of Certified Safety Professionals or the American Board of Industrial Hygiene can boost your earning potential as an occupational health specialist. Different safety certifications are available that can help you specialize in the areas of occupational health that interest you the most—like construction safety, environmental responsibility, safety training, or safety management. Each certification has its own exam format and length, but all of them will give you an advantage when it comes to advancing your career as an occupational health specialist.

Occupational Health Specialist Salary

How Much Do Occupational Health Specialists Make?

Like all the other highest paying public health careers, salaries for occupational health specialists tend to be highest for those with the most education and experience. According to the BLS, occupational health and safety specialists throughout the U.S. earn an average annual salary* of over $78,000, which works out to well over $37 per hour. Occupational health specialist salaries for the top 25% of earners start at around $95,000, while the top 10% of salaries in the profession can reach $112,000 per year and up.

Top-Paying Industries for Occupational Health Specialists

According to the BLS, you’ll find the top-paying jobs for occupational health specialists in these industries:

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Scientific Research & Development $46.87 $97,490
Petroleum & Coal Manufacturing $46.82 $97,380
Oil & Gas Extraction & Distribution $45.34 $94,300
Federal Executive Branch $42.49 $88,380
Management of Companies & Enterprises $41.43 $86,180

Highest-Paying States for Occupational Health Specialists

According to BLS data, occupational health specialists in these states earn the highest average annual wages:

State Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Rhode Island $46.13 $95,960
Washington D.C. $45.87 $95,410
California $45.15 $93,900
Massachusetts $42.93 $89,290
Connecticut $41.63 $86,590

Highest-Paying Cities for Occupational Health Specialists

BLS data shows these cities are where you’ll find the highest-paying jobs for occupational health specialists:

City Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
San Francisco, CA $53.97 $112,250
Richland, WA $51.82 $107,790
Santa Rosa, CA $48.65 $101,190
San Jose, CA $47.52 $98,840
Santa Barbara, CA $46.90 $97,560
Bridgeport, CT $46.45 $96,630
Los Angeles, CA $45.13 $93,870
Boston, MA $44.94 $93,470
Sacramento, CA $44.68 $92,930
Ventura, CA $44.37 $92,280

Occupational Health Specialist Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Occupational Health Specialists?

As long as there are health and safety hazards around workplaces and project sites, we’ll need occupational health specialists to keep workers safe and minimize risks to the surrounding communities and ecosystems. The BLS projects a steady demand for occupational health specialists in the coming years. The overall number of people working in the field is estimated to increase around 7% by the year 2030. That means occupational health specialists can expect a rosy job outlook for the foreseeable future.

Medical professional on an office phone

Ready to Start Your Career as an Occupational Health Specialist?

For people with strong protective instincts and a desire to make a positive difference in the world, becoming an occupational health specialist could be your ticket to a long and lucrative career. Not only will you have the chance to safeguard individual workers and entire communities from health problems, you’ll also be well-rewarded for your dedication and hard work with a generous salary* and excellent long-term job prospects.

Ready to begin your journey toward a fulfilling and well-paying career as an occupational health specialist? Click here to learn more about the MPH program at Brookline College, and start taking steps to achieve your new career in public health today!