What is an Occupational Health Degree?

Occupational health (OH) is all about protecting people at work. Every year around the world, there are thousands of preventable injuries and deaths in the workplace. Many of these accidents happen because employees and managers don’t know about – or aren’t following – the right safety procedures.

Occupational health specialists are experts in workplace safety legislation and best practices. They know how to minimize risks and help businesses of all kinds avoid the trauma and loss of serious worker injuries.

OH degree programs teach students how to recognize workplace hazards, conduct a workplace safety audit, develop and deliver workplace safety programs, understand factors that impact worker health and performance, develop emergency procedures and fire control systems, deal with hazardous spills, and manage workers’ compensation claims. In short, the objective of every OH curriculum is to produce the next generation of OH specialists.

Program Options

Programs in this field may be offered under the names occupational health (OH), occupational health and safety (OHS), and industrial hygiene (IH).

Bachelor’s Degree in Occupational Health – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, students of occupational health learn health and safety operations as well as business aspects, including human resources, communication, decision-making, and leadership. Field work and an industry practicum are common components of most programs.

The typical curriculum is comprised of courses like these:

• Business Information Systems – basic computing skills
• Chemistry I for OHS – basic inorganic chemistry
• Communication I for OHS Professionals – writing clearly and organizing and presenting information in reports and instructions
• Technical Mathematics for OHS – the integration of problem solving strategies with mathematical skills in OHS applications
• OHS Legislation – occupational health and safety legislation in the local area; workers’ compensation, safety regulation, due diligence, consultation, and enforcement
• OHS Fundamentals – an overview of the occupational health and safety field; how health and safety relate to an organization’s overall management system
• Accident Causation and Analysis – discussion of how accidents are caused and evidence to support the analysis and investigation of these causes
• Applied Physics I for OHS – basic physical principles and how they apply to relevant situations in the OHS technology
• Human Biology for OHS – the structure and function of human organ systems (lungs, skin, liver, kidneys, endocrine organs, ears, and eyes) under normal conditions; how organ systems respond to challenges and interactions with specific hazards in various work environments
• Introductory Law for OHS – introduction to the American legal system including its development, constitutional law, contracts, and business relationships
• Chemistry II for OHS – an applied approach to applying established chemical principles to chemical hazards and their problems and solutions
• Communication II for OHS Professionals – research, design, and ‘selling’ of a proposal for change on an OHS topic
• Statistics for OHS – graphical presentation of statistical data
• Safety Program Design – how to develop, implement, and maintain an OHS program within an organization
• Workplace Hazards and Controls – examination of health and safety hazards and controls in various work environments; building and plant layout, lighting, ventilation, automated lines, systems and processes, sanitation, personal protective equipment, manual materials and handling, electrical safety, building construction, excavations, blasting, ladders, work platforms, hoisting equipment, confined apace entry, fall protection, mobile equipment, equipment guarding, lock-out, hand and power tools, welding, and cutting
• Hazardous Materials Management – legislation regulating hazardous materials used, transferred, and stored in the workplace and the environment
• Emergency Preparedness and Response – how to reduce the effects of disasters through proven workplace emergency plans, procedures, and training
• Applied Physics II for OHS – covers areas of fluids, thermal physics, vibrations, waves and electricity, light, and properties of radiation
• Business Fundamentals – the principles of organizational behavior, workplace relationships, negotiation skills, the change process, and team building
• Organic Chemistry for OHS – the various classes of organic compounds likely to be encountered in the workplace; naming, structure, chemical and physical properties, industrial uses, toxicity and occupational hazards
• Advanced Communication for OHS – students write proposals, design questionnaires, negotiate a Term of Reference (a description of the objectives and structure of a meeting, committee, project, etc.), deliver progress reports, and conduct an evaluation of elements of a safety program
• Industrial Relations for OHS – introductory analysis of the issue and facts of labor-management relations
• Safety System Analysis – how to analyze / audit the effectiveness of an organization’s occupational health and safety program and overall safety system
• Occupational Hygiene with Laboratory – recognition and control of physical hazards in industrial hygiene: noise, vibration, temperature extremes, pressure extremes, non-ionizing radiation, and ionizing radiation
• Advanced Workplace Hazards and Controls – introduction to OHS systems in a number of industry sectors including petroleum, forestry, aviation, and railway; introduction to risk management
• Ergonomics – strategies and techniques for improving worker safety, health, efficiency, and comfort
• Fire Safety Planning – the chemistry of fire, fire hazards and causes, fire statistics, fire codes and regulations, prevention activities, occupancy requirements, construction considerations for fire safety
• Fire Safety Systems – fire detection and suppression; fire detection systems, portable fire extinguishers, automatic sprinkler systems, and fire, smoke, and heat alarms
• Industrial Chemical Processes – the chemical processes used in various industries, the chemical used, the chemical reactions, the products manufactures, the waste products and pollutants produced; the chemical hazards and toxicity to which workers may be exposed
• Engineering Concepts for OHS – the basic concepts of engineering materials including metals, alloys, plastics, and ceramics
• Occupational Diseases – respiratory, skin, liver, and kidney disorders; occupational diseases of the nervous system and reproductive tract; diseases related to biological and physical agent exposures; occupational cancer

Master’s Degree in Occupational Health – Two Year Duration
Master’s programs in occupational health typically allow students to follow a personalized plan of study. Program content spans coursework, seminar discussions, field work, readings, professional conferences, and opportunities to engage in research.

Here is how an OH master’s curriculum might be structured:

Coursework
• Current Issues in Safety – promotion and management of occupational safety; globalization, epidemics, and foreign workers
• Best Practices in Safety – how programs are developed, implemented, assessed, and modified; case studies of organizations which have been recognized with awards for excellence by private and governmental agencies
• Applied Occupational Health – historic examples of occupational diseases, developing an understanding of exposure assessment techniques in today’s workplace, and managing illness risks in health and safety programs
• Leading Safety Change – enhancing employee health and safety systems in organizations
• Safety Management Systems – management, document control, training, and corrective actions; moving organizations beyond basic compliance to innovative performance
• Risk and Safety – risk concepts, quantitative risk assessment (QRA), the interplay of science and policy, and decision-making processes
• Legal and Ethical Issues – case studies examine issues and prepare students for roles in actions such as litigation, workers’ compensation claims, and court hearings and trials
• Advanced Safety Research – identifying, analyzing, and evaluating safety research and research design

Capstone Requirement Options
• Thesis
• Graduate Practicum – provides students with an opportunity to translate classroom theory into practice in a workplace environment
• Applied Safety Research Project – collection and interpretation of data to produce an applied research project

Doctoral Degree in Occupational Health – Four to Five Year Duration
Occupational health programs at the doctoral level focus on developing skills necessary to perform rigorous research in the field. Graduates are prepared to assume leadership roles as public health scientists, researchers, and educators.

Sample Focus Areas
• Environmental Hazard Assessment
• Occupational and Environmental Epidemiologic Methods
• Toxicology
• US Environmental and Occupational Health Policy

Degrees Similar to Occupational Health

Building Inspection
Programs in building inspection teach students the skills needed to examine structures and verify that they have been constructed according to building codes and other related laws and regulations.

Environmental Health
This branch of public health deals with monitoring factors in the environment which affect human health and disease. Coursework includes physics, chemistry, human health law, environmental safety, and toxicology.

Environmental Studies
Students of environmental studies are exposed to the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. They apply knowledge from each of these areas to examine how resources can be sustained in the face of increasing populations, various forms of pollution, and the endangerment of species and natural systems.

Fire Science
Fire happens when oxygen comes into contact with fuel and a heat source. The field of fire science is dedicated to figuring out why and how fires start, how to stop them, and how to prevent them. To this end, degree programs in fire science focus on fire combustion and behaviors, methods and materials for putting out fires, identifying the origin and cause of fires, and the evolution of fires codes. Because of the nature of the science, chemistry and physics are also a part of the curriculum.

Healthcare Administration
This degree field is focused on administration of healthcare policy, services, and facilities. Students learn about healthcare law; healthcare ethics; healthcare economics, finance, and human resources; and long-term care and aging.

Industrial Engineering
Industrial engineering majors learn how to improve the way that industries and organizations, such as hospitals and factories, operate. They draw on their knowledge in math, science, business, and psychology to consider factors like materials, equipment, and people.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

Toxicology
We are all exposed to chemicals. Many of them benefit society. Some, however, may threaten our health. Pesticides in the food we eat, pollutants in the air we breathe, chemicals in the water we drink, adverse effects of drugs used to treat disease – these are the subjects of toxicology. These are the concerns of toxicologists, who seek to understand the effects of exposure to harmful substances, to improve the health and safety of humans and other living organisms, and to protect the environment in which we live. Toxicology connects knowledge from biology, chemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, public health, and environmental science.

Skills You'll Learn

While learning about occupational health and safety and developing the specific hard skills required to work in the field, students also cultivate a set of soft skills, which are valued across the job spectrum:

• Ability to use technology
• Active listening and communication
• Attention to detail
• Critical / analytical thinking
• Ethics and integrity
• Investigative and interviewing skills
• Leadership
• Legal awareness
• Observation
• Operations planning and management
• Persistence
• Physical stamina
• Problem-solving
• Project management
• Respect, empathy, and compassion
• Safety awareness and safety training skills
• Stress tolerance and management
• Technical report writing
• Understanding of human factors and processes

What Can You Do with an Occupational Health Degree?

Graduates of occupational health, occupational health and safety, and industrial hygiene programs find work in a wide array of industries. Their roles include safety inspection, management, planning, policymaking, and training.

Here is a snapshot of some of the largest employers of occupational health professionals:
• Manufacturing firms
• Regulatory and governmental organizations / public administration
• Construction companies
• Management, scientific, and technical consulting services
• Healthcare / Hospitals
• Engineering services
• Colleges and universities
• Employment services
• Electric power industries
• Architectural services
• Mining / oil and gas extraction
• Energy transmission
• Petrochemical
• Forestry
• Utilities
• Transportation and warehousing
• Insurance carriers
• Commercial and retail organizations

Titles held by those working in the field include:
• Environmental and Occupational Epidemiologist
• Environmental Health and Safety Engineer
• Environmental Health Scientist
• Industrial Hygienist
• Industrial Hygienist – Compliance Officer
• Injury Prevention Specialist
• Occupational Health and Safety Manager
• Occupational Health and Safety Team Leader
• OHS Educator
• OHS Project Director
• OHS Researcher
• Project Engineer
• Staff Wellbeing Professional

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