Health and Safety

Chemists in the Field

Brandon Chance

Brandon Chance
Chemical Safety Program Manager, Princeton University 

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Harry Elston
Principal Safety Consultant, Midwest Chemical Safety




Health and safety professionals assist employers in maintaining a safe workplace and managing environmental issues.  They look carefully for practices that may cause harm to employees, property, the environment, or the general public and provide advice on changes that will reduce the chances of adverse incidents that harm the environment or injure a colleague.

There are many specialties within the chemical safety field.  In industry, these types of people are most often found in  (EH&S) department. 


  • Occupational health and safety technicians collect samples, take measurements and conduct routine tests either for routine workplace inspections or as directed by an occupational health and safety specialist. Specialists then analyze the data and overall work environment, and  design and/or revise processes and procedures to reduce or eliminate the chance of harm to workers or to the environment. Technicians also work under the supervision of specialists to help implement and evaluate safety programs.
  • Environmental health and safety professionals focus on reducing the risk of people developing chemical-related illnesses associated with potentially hazardous chemicals, including lead, asbestos, noise, pesticides, and more. Unwanted effects could include systemic diseases such as topical or respiratory effects, cancer, or reproductive effects.
  • A chemical hygiene officer is a specialist focused on a single OSHA standard—the Laboratory Standard, which applies only to chemical exposure in laboratories.
  • Health physicists work in laboratories, hospitals, and other places that use radioactive materials, radiation machines, and lasers. They protect both people and the environment from unwanted exposure to ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
  • Other members of EH&S departments may conduct laboratory inspections, manage the collection and disposal of hazardous waste, assess the accuracy of chemical inventories, manage emergency responses, and more. They all act as advisors to the employer, making recommendations that enhance the safety of the workplace, resulting in increased productivity, improved morale among employees, and ultimately lower workman’s compensation and liability costs.

Typical Work Duties

  • Inspect machinery, facilities, laboratories and equipment to identify potential chemical, physical, biological or radiological hazards
  • Collect and analyze samples to monitor workplace occupational exposure levels
  • Attend continuing education classes to stay current on changing regulations
  • Recommend, develop and deliver safety training for employees
  • Monitor compliance with, and effectiveness of, existing policies and procedures
  • Recommend improvements to workplace procedures and employee safety and awareness programs
  • Investigate accidents to determine their cause, and identify preventative mechanisms



An associate’s degree or certificate is a typical background for a technician, while a bachelor’s degree (typically in electrical, chemical, mechanical, industrial, or another engineering discipline) is generally required for entry as a specialist. Depending on the industry, training in applicable laws, regulations, and inspection procedures is accomplished through a combination of classroom and on the job training. Internships are not required, but employers prefer to hire applicants who have real experience.



There are a number of professionally recognized certifications. Certification requirements vary by state and by industry. Certification is usually based on education, experience, and a formal examination, and it is available from multiple sources depending on the particular field of endeavor. It is usually required for management level positions and is encouraged by many employers.


Work Space

While some of their work is done in an office, entry-level positions spend significant amounts of time in the plant, factory, outdoors, or in a lab to conduct inspections. Travel to other locations may be required to conduct inspections, and long or irregular hours may be required in emergency situations.  They may have to wear uncomfortable personal protective equipment and sometimes work in physically demanding situations.

Tragic Chemical Accidents: Tales, Investigations, and Lessons Learned

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Technical Skills

  • Data collection and analysis using computers and sophisticated testing equipment
  • Detail-oriented, to make sure everything is collected and reported accurately
  • Creativity and problem-solving skills to create safe and productive work environments
  • Negotiating skills to get all interested parties to agree on workable solutions
  • Physical stamina for plant tours and data collection in all sorts of environments
  • Continuous learning, to keep up on changing regulations and advances in ergonomics, biological effects, and more
  • Oral and written communication skills to convey findings and recommendations


Career Path

New health and safety professionals generally work under more experienced workers and mainly collect data. As their knowledge and expertise increases, they move into more difficult projects with greater independence, which may require an advanced degree. Those who start out in the field with an advanced degree will progress faster.


Future Employment Trends

This field is predicted to grow at an average, or slightly lower than average pace, between 2010 and 2020. Increasingly complex regulations and constant changes mean people with current knowledge are needed, and continuing education is required to remain in this field. However, budget cuts will affect the 40% of these workers employed by local, state, and federal governments.


Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

A career as a health and safety worker requires caring about both people and the environment and having a passion for making the workplace as safe as possible. If you enjoy identifying the right thing, and convincing others to do it, this could be the career for you. However, you must be prepared for the responsibility—you may be accused of being too strict if nothing goes wrong but not strict enough when someone gets hurt.  


Since up to 40% of health and safety professionals work for federal, state and local governments, these positions are affected when government funding is reduced.  However, EH&S professionals will always be needed to enforce regulations in the workplace and improve conditions for workers.  

Education Needed

Entry-level positions include technician (for those with an associate’s degree) or specialists (for those with a bachelor’s degree). Work experience is critical, so internships are strongly encouraged.


  • Industrial Health and Safety Technicians - $47,440 (2012)
  • Occupational Health and Safety Specialists - $66,790 (2012)
  • Industrial Health and Safety Engineers - $79,830 (2012)