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When you choose a career that emphasizes health and safety, you can protect countless individuals from serous injury. However, there is more than one career path that offers this fulfilling mission, and those career paths tend to be very different. When choosing between a background in engineering and environmental health that allows you to work as a health and safety engineer and a background in occupational health and safety, you need to weigh the pros and cons of each option. Among the benefits of preparing for a health and safety engineer occupation are the emphasis on engineering design, the focus on mental engagement over physical fortitude and the higher salary potential.

Benefit of a Health and Safety Engineering Degree Vs an Occupational Health and Safety Degree

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Focus on Safe Design Rather than Regulation Enforcement

An important step for all students interested in working in health and safety is to identify what they actually want to do in the field. Health and safety engineers may work at the forefront of safety, designing and developing the systems and procedures used to keep people safe, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A health and safety engineer is responsible for preventing products and devices that range from computer software to chemical solutions and manufacturing machinery to furniture fixtures from causing harm to users. To do this job, engineers need to be as familiar with health and safety regulations, processes and policies as they are with the engineering principles and practices that allow for safe products. There are specialties within the field of health and safety engineering, including product safety or product compliance engineering, fire prevention and protection engineering and systems safety engineering. Degrees in chemical engineering, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering and systems engineering can all be excellent choices for aspiring health and safety engineers.

Occupational health and safety specialists play a different role in the safety professions. This occupation is responsible for ensuring that workplaces adhere to health and safety regulations, the BLS reported. Fieldwork, which takes the form of inspecting workplaces for the purpose of enforcing safety regulations, is a crucial part of the job of an occupational health and safety specialist. Students in undergraduate occupational safety and health degree programs might complete classes such as Health and Safety Techniques, Hazard Control, Fire Science, Environmental Safety and Health Regulations and Critical Incident Analysis.

Some safety engineers have an interdisciplinary background in environmental health and safety. The subjects you study matter more than the precise name of your major and should include applied engineering, ergonomics and environmental and occupational health and safety.

More Mental Engagement and Less Physical Demand

It may seem ironic that there are significant occupational hazards for occupational health and safety specialists. These workers do a great deal of fieldwork that may involve dangerous, stressful or strenuous activity and must rely on personal protective and safety equipment to prevent illness or injury, the BLS reported. In keeping with that, the BLS reports that the physical stamina to stand and walk for long periods of time, often in settings like mines and tunnels, is one of the most important qualities an occupational health and safety specialist can have. Of course, it is important for occupational health and safety specialists to have other attributes, like a detail-oriented nature and skills in communication and problem-solving, but this physically demanding career is not suitable for candidates who prefer to site safely at a desk all day.

Health and safety engineers often work in offices, but you still can’t spend all of your time behind a desk. Traveling to worksites to perform tasks such as inspecting facilities and equipment, installing safety devices and identifying safety hazards and ways to correct them is an important part of this occupation, the BLS reported. However, physical stamina is not among the most important qualities health and safety engineers should have, as it is for occupational health and safety specialists. Rather, the BLS states that communication skills, creativity, critical-thinking skills, observational skills and problem-solving skills are particularly valuable for this occupation. Success as a health and safety engineer requires you to creatively come up with new and unique designs that solve real-world safety problems effectively, rather than revolving around your ability to travel the terrain of uncomfortable workplaces.

About 26 percent of occupational health and safety specialists work for the government and 15 percent work in manufacturing. The numbers are almost reversed for safety engineers, for whom manufacturing is the top employer, accounting for 25 percent of jobs, and just 13 percent work for the government.

Income Potential

When it comes to salary potential, the difference between these two jobs can be measured in thousands of dollars. Occupational health and safety specialists earn a median wage of $71,780, according to the BLS. The highest paid safety specialists, the four percent who work for hospitals, earn a median wage of $73,270. Health and safety engineers enjoy higher wages, with a median salary of $88,510. Wages for this occupation in the highest paying industry, management and technical consulting services, are approaching the six-figure range with a median salary of $98,720.

About five percent of health and safety engineers work in management, scientific and technical consulting services.

Additional Resources

Top 10 Paying Jobs with an Associate’s Degree

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Safety Engineer?

50 Highest Paying Bachelor’s Degrees