This varied practical career brings you into contact with people, so you need to be a good communicator as well as a problem-solver

As an occupational hygienist, your job will be to identify, assess and control health hazards in the workplace. You'll need to understand how chemical, physical and biological agents may affect the health of the workforce and, in turn, the health of the business.

Workplace hazards can be:

  • chemical - dusts, vapours
  • physical - heat, light, noise, radiation
  • ergonomic - posture, motion
  • biological - bacteria, viruses
  • psychosocial - stress, violence, bullying.

You may work in a range of settings, including factories, offices and building sites. You'll be concerned with controlling health risks in practical and cost-effective ways by assessing and resolving practical problems.

You'll need to look at the short and long-term health effects that are caused by both acute and chronic exposure to hazards and also help organisations to respond effectively to legislative requirements.

Occupational hygienists may also be known as industrial hygienists.

Responsibilities

As an occupational hygienist, you'll need to:

  • undertake surveys and evaluate risks to health in the workplace
  • accurately measure and sample levels of exposure, often through precise use of specialist equipment
  • record facts or details of procedures in the workplace
  • eliminate or significantly reduce risk by making organisational changes and selecting and designing relevant facilities
  • consider all options of control, such as ventilation, containment and personal protective equipment and find cost-effective solutions
  • compile data, write reports and present findings to clients
  • liaise with a range of people, including employers and employees, in the process of evaluating workplaces
  • provide clear and accurate information on complex health and safety issues
  • train organisation staff on health issues such as asbestos and Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) awareness
  • persuade company management to develop effective hazard controls when required
  • provide expert witness services
  • liaise with regulatory bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Salary

  • Starting salaries range from £22,000 to £28,000, depending on your experience and qualifications.
  • With substantial experience, you could earn between £30,000 and £50,000.
  • Salaries for those at senior level or with an established consultancy business can exceed £60,000.

Salaries vary according to experience, type of employer and location. Some employers may provide additional benefits, such as a company car, health insurance and pension schemes.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, possibly with some extra hours. Weekend and evening work may be required occasionally.

It's possible to become self-employed or find work as a freelance consultant once you've gained significant experience. You'll usually be required to specialise in a certain area.

What to expect

  • The role has practical as well as purely scientific aspects and involves adapting to different types of working environments and liaising with a variety of people.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK, with opportunities in most large towns and cities. However, this is a small profession overall.
  • The range of fields in which it's possible to work is broadening due to increased legislation and growing recognition of factors that impact on staff health, such as stress at work.
  • Travel within a working day is common, as you need to visit clients' sites to investigate situations in the workplace.
  • Overnight absence from home for site visits is possible but this is more likely if you're responsible for more than one site or involved in consultancy work.
  • Overseas work and travel is possible, particularly if you work for an international company or for the offshore industry.

Qualifications

Most employers will want you to have a science or engineering-based background with a science-related degree, such as pure mathematics, science, engineering or health.

In particular, the following subjects may increase your chances:

  • biomedical science
  • chemical engineering
  • chemistry
  • environmental health
  • environmental science (biological)
  • mathematics
  • medical laboratory science
  • occupational safety, health and environment
  • physical sciences
  • production/manufacturing engineering.

A degree is usually required but in some instances an HND may be accepted. This is likely to be at a technician level though, and you'll need to take further qualifications to progress. Relevant HND subjects include physical and applied sciences and life and medical sciences.

Entry without a degree or HND is unlikely, but it may be possible if you have extensive experience in a related area and are willing to progress by completing further training and qualifications.

Postgraduate diplomas and Masters in occupational hygiene or health are available and some provide exemption from exams that are run by the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS). See BOHS Accredited Degrees for details.

Occupational hygiene is a second career for many, with workers moving from jobs such as chemists, engineers, biologists, physicists, doctors, nurses or from occupational safety roles within other areas.

Skills

You will need:

  • excellent communication and interpersonal skills to gain the confidence and cooperation of the workforce
  • an analytical approach and a high level of attention to detail
  • problem-solving skills and the ability to operate effectively under pressure and to tight deadlines
  • negotiating skills and the capacity to persuade others in order to achieve results and initiate action
  • operational decision-making skills
  • an understanding of practical conditions in industry and the ability to apply workable solutions
  • the ability to work independently and also as part of a team to meet health objectives
  • technical and IT skills for using specialist equipment
  • an interest in the law and regulations.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience provides a valuable insight into the realities of the role. As a start, you could look to take on health and safety responsibilities within a current part-time job to begin to learn about factors and risks that need to be considered.

Full-time students can get membership with BOHS, which can give you access to professionals for networking purposes, updates on industry news, educational resources and news on job vacancies.

Some employers might look for experience in another science or engineering role, where you could have started to build competencies that help to lead to industry qualifications.

Employers

As an occupational hygienist, you could find work with:

Consultancies may specialise in providing services for a particular sector, such as the construction or engineering industries, or offer support to a range of organisations. Many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often use consultants to fulfil their health and safety requirements.

You can search for consultancies at BOHS Consultant Directory.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

You'll receive on-the-job training and will also usually be given the opportunity to work towards professional qualifications. Relevant Masters courses are available in subjects such as:

  • occupational hygiene
  • occupational safety and health
  • occupational and environmental health and safety management.

Search for postgraduate courses in occupational hygiene.

BOHS offers a range of training opportunities, including intermediate level qualifications which cover the following core modules:

  • measurement of hazardous substances
  • noise - measurement and its effects
  • control of hazardous substances
  • health effects of hazardous substances.

There are also optional modules that you can choose from depending on your interests.

You can progress onto professional qualifications with BOHS, which include:

  • Certificate of Operational Competence in Occupational Hygiene - this demonstrates your knowledge and competence in the broad principles and practice of occupational hygiene. You must have at least three years' experience in practice, as well as six modules from the intermediate level of qualifications. Once passed, you'll gain Licentiate membership with the Faculty of Occupational Hygiene.
  • Diploma of Professional Competence in Occupational Hygiene - this is the highest professional occupational hygiene qualification. You'll need to have at least five years' experience and have either passed the Certificate qualification or a BOHS-accredited postgraduate qualification. The Diploma award allows you to become a chartered member of the Faculty.

Find out more about the routes at BOHS Qualifications & Training.

If you are a member of the Faculty of Occupational Hygiene, at any level you'll need to carry out continuing professional development (CPD) to demonstrate your professional competence. BOHS has details of presentations, conferences and events to help with this.

Career prospects

The opportunities for promotion depend on the nature of the company you work for. Undertaking further training and gaining professional qualifications, such as those offered by BOHS, can help with career progression.

You can choose to specialise in a particular area of occupational hygiene, such as asbestos or legionella, or you could move into management, consultancy or roles within government departments.

With experience, you could become an independent consultant but you'll need to have built up a good list of contacts and may find this easier if you have a specialist area. It's also possible to develop a career internationally.

Lectureships and the opportunities to undertake research in academic departments may also be available.