Many people go into occupational health and safety because it is a rewarding career — implementing processes and procedures that can save lives. But they may not realize it also has many opportunities for variety and professional advancement.
OHS professionals can have varied career paths just based on the wide range of industries that require their expertise, says Thomas Tenkate, director of the School of Occupational and Public Health at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“Even though the issues might be different in another sector, (the skills) are still very transferable and a lot of people might start in oil and gas but move into manufacturing or construction,” he says. “The variety of where people can be employed is a real bonus and it opens up so many potential opportunities.”
OHS professionals may want to look to sectors that don’t traditionally have health and safety roles, such as non-profit organizations. People going into these roles are doing so because they really want to make a difference, says Shelly Ptolemy, senior occupational health consultant at Ptolemy & Associates in Calgary.
Another area to consider is government agencies.
“There is a huge opportunity to work with folks that build the foundation from a best practice perspective or from the perspective of looking at legislation — you really have a voice there,” says Ptolemy. “Can you image developing something that lives through an act or through best practice recognition?”
There are several specialties that occupational health and safety professionals may want to consider in lieu of being an OHS generalist.
For example, behavioural safety is something that is starting to gain traction, says Ptolemy. This takes a look at the psychology of safety as it relates to employee behaviour. This may be of particular interest to people who like working with others.
“(OHS professionals) can look at this as a career path especially in the organizations that are founded more on the service end of things where the human impact plays a big part in terms of behaviour, as opposed to a manufacturing environment where process and equipment plays a bigger part,” says Ptolemy.
Behavioural safety specialists can help employees and managers be aware of what acts, values and assumptions they make that impact their safety.
“There are a lot of unsafe acts and you and I can build all the administrative and engineering controls, have the proper PPE in place and it still happens because of people’s beliefs, attitudes and even their learning patterns,” she says. “It’s a different way of managing risk.”
While they are currently few and far between, there are some job postings popping up specifically for behavioural safety specialists, and Ptolemy expects to see this area grow significantly in the future.
Another specialty is process safety. This is very interesting for people who are analytical or enjoy the background piece of how process impacts safety.
“That’s an evolution that continues to arise,” says Ptolemy. “When I started, there was not a lot of work on process, but it’s a huge component and people need to think about it when they’re looking at career paths.”
Process safety positions look at the specifications of equipment and the processes around them that may create hazards.
“(For example): What’s in this pipe? Where is the stuff in this pipe going? How is it maintained? What are the variables that are impacting safety of that process coming from the environment,” says Ptolemy. “It’s about looking at the process of what’s happening and it might not include an employee.”
After working in the field for a few years, receiving the Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP) designation is a good way to take a career to the next level, says Andrew Church, OHS officer at Nova Scotia Community College in Dartmouth, N.S.
“The CRSP designation is the gold standard in Canada,” he says.
The portfolio, education and work experience required to get the designation speaks volumes to the type of professionals who hold the designation. This is why job ads often say: “Must have CRSP” or “Must be working towards CRSP,” says Church.
The designation is also very helpful for professional advancement.
“Definitely the CRSP would allow you to become a safety manager rather than a field officer… it’s an important thing to do if you want to be a safety professional long term,” he says.
Safety professionals in the mid-range of their careers often turn to leadership opportunities.
“They should look for positions where they can lead people, take more responsibility for outcomes that are team driven instead of individually driven and this may mean hiring folks that are more proficient at certain competencies than you are yourself,” says Ptolemy.
Taking on a management role may require expanding duties into workers’ compensation and managing accommodation for disability, says Tenkate. Professionals at this level will also be required to demonstrate efficiencies and cost savings of health and safety systems, he says.
“(You need the) ability to show value of what you’re doing by putting a dollar value on it: ‘By having this to ensure the health and safety of our workforce, it saves us X dollars,’” says Tenkate.
“You need to advocate in the organization to show value and benefits of an efficient and appropriate system.”
There are also options for OHS professionals to branch into different but related occupations, such as occupational hygiene.
“A practitioner in occupational health and safety could already be practising some hygiene… I could be doing air sampling or noise monitoring as part of my job,” says Renzo Dalla Via, past chair of the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals in Mississauga, Ont.
“To get into it in a fuller, more robust way, it’s very possible.”
These professionals may be interested in looking into the Registered Occupational Hygienist (ROH) designation from the Canadian Registration Board of Occupational Hygienists, which may require additional education or experience.
Environmental management positions might be another option for occupational health and safety professionals wanting to further their careers. In many cases, companies only hire one individual for health, safety and environment, so it’s likely OHS practitioners already have a good handle on environmental issues, says Dalla Via.
“If you’re going to hire a health and safety practitioner, it’s a pretty good bet that individual would be more than likely prepared, if not absolutely easily prepared, to take on the role once they have a sense of what’s needed by the company and given some time to review some materials — that is very much a plausibility,” says Dalla Via.
The consulting route is another option. The Canadian Society of Safety Engineering’s Certified Health and Safety Consultant (CHSC) designation may be of interest.
After 40 years of full-time work in the health and safety profession, Dalla Via started his own environmental, health and safety consulting business.
While he had “more than enough” of working for organizations, he was not ready to leave the workforce completely.
“I wanted to use the experience and wisdom and mistakes I’ve made, lesson learned, so I’ve entered the consulting field for no other reason than to extend the shelf life,” he says.
Reaching the top
For OHS professionals, the ultimate goal may be to become a vice-president of health and safety or even a chief safety officer. At this level, it’s a matter of trust in the individual and whether the company can maintain a role of that stature.
“It’s not a technical issue anymore… it’s no longer what I’ve done and what subjects I’ve learned and what knowledge I bring, but how much can I actually function in that role to represent the company in a professional fashion in the field and get the job done,” says Dalla Via.
“And it can easily be done by a health and safety professional who carries also that particular personal trait.”
A company will often have someone in a vice-president role who has health and safety as his obligation, but is not necessarily from an OHS background, says Dalla Via. He might be someone who is well respected in the company, such as an engineer who had been a plant manager or an operations manager.
“That doesn’t negate that once the role was made they don’t funnel the health and safety person into it — that’s often what will happen,” says Dalla Via. “Eventually, once the corporation has a good sense that it’s good, it’s a V.P. position that’s worth maintaining, then they will typically stream them up through the OHS role.”
Although not all companies have safety represented at these high levels, the positions are there, they do exist and they are not beyond someone’s reach, says Dalla Via.
No matter what path they choose to follow, occupational health and safety professionals need to make sure they take charge of their own careers, says Ptolemy.
“They need to really examine what they want to do,” she says. “Don’t just hope that something is going to come out and it will bite them on the finger: ‘This is it, this is what you should be doing.’ People need to do more exploration from their perspective.”