Occupational hygienists identify, assess and control health hazards in the workplace in order to protect workers' health and wellbeing, and to ensure the safety of the wider community
As an occupational hygienist, you may work in a range of settings, including factories, offices and building sites. 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.
You'll be concerned with controlling workplace health risks in practical and cost-effective ways by assessing and resolving practical problems. This will involve looking at the short and long-term health effects, caused by both acute and chronic exposure to hazards, and helping organisations to respond effectively to legislative requirements.
Occupational hygienists may also be known as industrial hygienists.
Types of workplace hazard
These can include:
- biological - bacteria, parasites, viruses, enzymes and other proteins
- chemical - liquids, gases, dusts, fumes, vapours
- ergonomic - posture, motion, musculoskeletal loadings, manual handling, workplace layout, controls and displays
- physical - heat, cold, light, noise, radiation, vibration, electromagnetic fields
- psychosocial - stress, violence.
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, processes and tasks 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 containment, local exhaust ventilation 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 and advice 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).
For more information on the activities of an occupational hygienist, see the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS).
- Salaries at trainee level start at £22,000 to £28,000 full-time for those with a scientific background.
- With substantial experience, you could earn between £30,000 and £50,000.
- Salaries for those in senior roles such as manager or director of occupational hygiene or with an established consultancy business can exceed £60,000.
Salaries vary according to experience, qualifications, 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.
Although working hours are typically 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, this varies depending on the industry you work in. Shift work, weekend and evening work may be required in some roles.
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.
- You'll typically work as part of a multidisciplinary team that includes other health and safety professionals such as engineers, occupational health nurses and physicians.
- 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 workplace design and 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 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.
Many graduates working as occupational hygienists have a science or technology-based degree. In particular, the following subjects may increase your chances:
- biomedical science
- environmental health
- environmental science (biological)
- medical laboratory science
- occupational health and safety
It's also possible to take a diploma in a related subject such as health and safety or environmental science.
Postgraduate diplomas and Masters in occupational hygiene or health are also available and some provide exemption from exams that are run by the BOHS. See BOHS Accredited Degrees for details.
Occupational hygiene can be a second career, with workers moving from roles such as laboratory technician, chemist, engineer, biologist or physicist or from general health and safety roles. Further training will usually be needed to obtain professional qualifications.
You will need:
- the ability to apply the underlying principles of occupational hygiene
- excellent communication and interpersonal skills to gain the confidence and cooperation of the workforce
- analytical skills 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 and motivate others in order to achieve results and initiate action
- operational decision-making skills
- project management 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.
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.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
As an occupational hygienist, you could find work with large industrial companies in areas such as chemicals, construction, energy, engineering, manufacturing, mining, oil, manufacturing and refining.
You can also work for regulatory bodies such as:
- Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
- Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Scotland
- Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI).
In these types of organisation, you'll help to set national policy and ensure health and safety regulations are met.
Other opportunities exist with occupational hygiene consultancies. 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. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often use consultants to fulfil their health and safety requirements. You can search for consultancies at the BOHS Directory of Occupational Hygiene Services.
Other employers include:
- environmental monitoring companies
- government agencies
- health services
- rail industries
- academic institutions.
Look for job vacancies at:
You can also search for vacancies on networking sites such as LinkedIn.
You'll receive on-the-job training and will also usually be given the opportunity to work towards professional qualifications offered by the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS).
The BOHS offers a range of training opportunities, including intermediate-level qualifications which are part of the OHTA International Training Scheme and Qualifications Framework and cover the following core modules:
- measurement of hazardous substances
- noise - measurement and its effects
- control of hazardous substances
- health effects of hazardous substances.
You must also choose two optional modules, depending on your interests.
You can progress onto further BOHS qualifications, which include:
- Certificate of Operational Competence in Occupational Hygiene (CertOH) - 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 or a BOHS-accredited degree. On successful completion, you're eligible for licentiate membership of the Faculty of Occupational Hygiene.
- Diploma of Professional Competence in Occupational Hygiene (DipOH) - 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 MSc or equivalent qualification. The Diploma award allows you to become a chartered member of the Faculty.
Find out more about the routes at BOHS Qualifications.
Once you've gained at least five years' experience as a chartered member and have made a distinct contribution to the industry, you may be eligible for chartered fellow status.
If you're 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. The BOHS has details of presentations, conferences and events to help with this. There is also a mentoring scheme to help you connect with more senior occupational hygienists.
You can also take further study at Masters level. Search for postgraduate courses in occupational hygiene.
There is a structured progression route in occupational hygiene. As you gain experience and professional qualifications, you can progress through the levels:
- occupational hygiene technician or trainee
- occupational hygiene associate
- occupational hygienist (Licentiate)
- chartered occupational hygienist
- manager/director of occupational hygiene
- occupational health director.
The opportunities for promotion will depend on the size and nature of the company you work for, your skills, experience and qualifications.
In more senior roles, such as manager or director, you'll typically lead a team of occupational hygienists. At the very highest levels, you're likely to manage a multidisciplinary occupational health team and have responsibility for strategy. There are fewer opportunities available at senior level.
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.
There are also opportunities for experienced occupational hygienists to move into managerial and wider health and safety roles.