Safety as a field is still growing according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, although it is slowing down from the heady double digit growth projected in the past decade. As of 2014, the growth rate is projected to be 4% for specialists and 6% for engineers through 2024. There is, of course, the additional openings expected as the large cohort of baby boomers continue to retire from these roles. In this piece, we will look at safety as a profession and why demand for safety professionals is expected to stay steady.
What Is a Safety Professional?
Safety professional is a general term that covers some of the following occupational classifications in Canada and the US:
- Environmental health officer
- Health and safety officer
- Health standards inspector
- Occupational health and safety officer
- Pollution control inspector
- Public health inspector
- Restaurant inspector
- Rodent control officer supervisor
- Public health inspector
- Water inspector
- Safety officer
- Safety project manager
- Safety manager
There are many other titles and classifications in this field, but the general idea of these occupations is to ensure that a businesses, industry, and the workforce is operating safely. This involves a multi-tier process that usually starts with an inspection of the industry or business, the identification of any hazards, and ensuring safe work methods are implemented, as well as communicating safety concerns between workers, management and external bodies. In other words, it isn't easy.
The Health and Safety Landscape
Safety professionals are usually trained in a post-secondary setting in health and science, health and safety, or some other related discipline. These individuals are expected to have sound decision-making skills and excellent judgment when assessing health and safety related situations.
They are the people that are sent in after an accident has happened to determine causes, and are experts in finding links between the causal relationships of hazards and accidents. With this information, they are able to implement new strategies in safe work procedures to reduce the risk of accidents reoccuring in the future. As a result, many companies hire safety professionals to redesign work processes and workflow to ensure better safety going forward. This is increasing the demand in the safety field, leading to a shift in perceptions about safety as a career. (For more, see 10 Critical Steps for Investigating and Reporting Accidents.)
Safety Professionals Save Lives and Money
Traditionally safety has been unfavorably case as a cost due to the salary or wage of the safety professional and the costs of adding safety equipment and process to the work environment. There is, however, a lot of evidence that the money (not to mention lives) that safety saves in the workplace is simply not being perceived correctly. As managerial thinking is catching up, more companies are keeping an internal staff of safety professionals. Service Canada says it best:
"In the private sector, the high cost of contributions paid only by employers, along with an awareness of the indirect costs involved in occupational accidents (slowdowns in production, training of new workers, decreased productivity when people return from leave, etc.) have led to a strong increase in employer demand for services designed to eliminate the causes of work accidents. These services of course include health and safety inspectors who work directly for companies on subcontracts or for employer or labour/management associations. Given all of these factors, the number of inspectors in public and environmental health and occupational health and safety is expected to increase significantly over the next few years"
Safety as Part of Compliance
Another reason for an increase in the hiring of safety workers is to ensure compliance and accountability among a workforce. If the workforce is not accountable to a specific person, then they may just cut corners and sacrifice safety at the cost of production. The safety worker is a friend of the workforce and works to support their requests to upper management, so that any dangerous or hazardous encounters can be noted and implemented into the safe-work process.
In addition to providing a channel between the workers and upper management, safety professionals act as a liaison with contractors, stakeholders, external governing agencies and auditors. Having a safety professional on board to handle these communications as well as overseeing inspections and operations is not a light task. Many large companies have more than one person working in a safety management capacity. Given that, and the increased push for safe work and safe management practices, there seems to be a growing trend in safety work for the next generation of workers. (For more, see Congratulations, You Got the Safety Job! Now What?)
Safety as a Company Value
With the increasing scrutiny on the behavior of companies, more and more operations are required to prove that they are safe. For example, if a contractor wants to work on a job, they will often have to include in their bid how they will get the job done safely. If one company simply states crew is safe in the bid and another company states they have a safety officer to ensure safe work procedures are being followed and that the employees are compliant with the guidelines, the business with safety oriented production plans is usually favored.
An accident can tarnish any company’s reputation, as well as cost thousands (if not millions) of dollars. There is no room for unsafe work practices in today’s world. As a result, safety is everyone’s responsibility - at least in the best-run, most forward-thinking companies. (For more, see Why Creating a Safety Culture Is Better Than Relying on Compliance.)
Taking the First Step Into a Career in Safety
Safety professionals started out being developed internally by companies with their own unique processes. Now, there are multiple paths into the profession in addition to internal training. These include certification programs as well as post secondary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists a bachelor's degree as the most common entry level education for both a safety specialist and a safety engineer. A quick search will turn up colleges and universities in your are that provide programs for safety professionals.Safety professionals are in demand in both the public and private sector to help companies navigate compliance and live up to safety as a corporate value, so there has rarely been a better time to get started in the field. (Also check out, So, You Want to Be a Safety Consultant?)