This is a pretty niche profession: not many people will have heard of occupational hygienists, and the occupational hygienist population, so to speak, is small. However, with the tightening of legislation and various other factors, there are new fields and areas of work for these guys to enter.
Occupational hygienists work in a range of environments, from factories and building sites to offices. Their main goal is to limit health risks through practical and cost-effective methods.
These aren’t just the guys showing you the correct way to sit to avoid back pain – they also measure and control more serious health risks, like chemical, biological and physical factors.
Increasingly, occupational hygienists are called in to look at psychological factors that might impinge on employee wellbeing, such as stress.
You might scoff, but employee health is vitally important for running successful businesses. On a more cynical level, businesses need to meet certain health and safety regulations, and occupational hygienists make sure they reach them in order to avoid any legal implications.
So what do they do from day to day? Occupational hygienists might be required to carry out detailed surveys, use specialist equipment to measure hazards, and compile reports and data to present to clients. They’ll cook up cost-effective solutions to remedy problems, offer advice on health and safety regulations and might even train employees.
An occupational hygienist will have both practical and scientific knowledge. It’s a role that requires a good deal of problem solving, analytical and logical thinking, and decision-making skills.
Salary & benefits
Starting salaries can range between £18,000 and £30,000 depending on location and employer. With experience, salaries might increase to anywhere between £35,000 and £50,000.
Those working at a really senior level, or have built up an established practice as a freelance consultant, could earn well over £60,000.
Working hours are pretty regular for most occupational hygienists. They usually have a standard working week of 40 hours, although, on occasion, weekend and evening work might be required.
Occupational hygienists don’t spend their entire working week behind a desk. In fact, this really isn’t your average desk job, as most of this lot will be expected to travel to various sites on a regular basis.
If you want to become an occupational hygienist, you should be aware that the landscape of the profession is changing. Companies are increasingly ditching in-house occupational hygienists and contracting the work out to consultancies. This will have implications for those starting out in the profession.
As it’s a profession that requires an understanding of science, most employers will be looking for those with a science-based degree. This might be a degree in life and medical sciences, physical and applied sciences or engineering.
Particularly relevant degrees (depending on the industry where you want to be working) include: geochemistry, environmental science, environmental health, chemical engineering, biomedical science, physical science, occupational safety, health and environment and medical laboratory science.
Relevant work experience and a postgraduate degree in occupational hygiene or health might be advantageous for those trying to break into the profession.
This is not necessarily an entry level job and most posts in companies will be filled through internal promotions.
Largely, companies will be looking for those with previous experience in another science-based role, although occupational health consultancies might take on those with a degree relevant to the area in which they specialise. Those looking to enter the profession will probably want to work towards gaining a BOHS (British Occupational Hygiene Society) or NEBOSH certificate.
Occupational hygienists should be able to handle and interact with a wide range of people. Persuasion and negotiation skills are high on the list of desirable traits, as well as being able to use analytical and methodical approaches to solve problems.
These guys will also have to process complex information, rules and regulations, as well as keep an eye on practical issues.
Training & progression
This isn’t necessarily an entry level position. ‘On-the-job’ training is becoming an increasing rarity as most work is now found at consultancies. Unfortunately, consultancies can be reluctant to take on relatively recent graduates, although they might hire them at a technician level.
Those wishing to progress in their career might take an MSc or professional certificate approved or offered by the British Occupational Hygiene Society. Career progression takes the form either of specialisation or a move into more managerial roles.
Many occupational hygienists become self-employed and freelance as consultants.
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