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

Occupational hygienists are responsible for identifying, assessing and controlling health hazards in the workplace. They 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.

Work is carried out 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 concentrate on the short and long-term effects on health arising from both acute and chronic exposure to hazards, and will enable organisations to respond effectively to legislative requirements.

Occupational hygienists may also be known as industrial hygienists.

Responsibilities

Duties vary between specialist areas and employers, but can include:

  • undertaking surveys and evaluating risks to health in the workplace;
  • accurately measuring and sampling levels of exposure, often through precise use of specialist equipment;
  • recording facts or details of procedures in the workplace;
  • eliminating or significantly reducing risk by making organisational changes and selecting and designing relevant facilities;
  • considering all options of control, such as ventilation, containment and personal protective equipment and finding cost-effective solutions;
  • compiling data, writing reports and presenting findings to clients;
  • liaising with a range of people, including employers and employees, in the process of evaluating workplaces;
  • providing clear and accurate information on complex health and safety issues;
  • training organisation staff on health issues such as asbestos and Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) awareness;
  • persuading company management to develop effective hazard controls when required;
  • providing expert witness services;
  • liaising with regulatory bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Salary

  • Starting salaries range from £18,000 to £28,000, depending on experience and qualifications.
  • Once you have substantial experience you can 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.

Self-employment and freelance work as a consultant are common for experienced occupational hygienists. Specialisation is usually required.

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 is 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 are 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 look for candidates who come from a science or engineering-based background and who have a science-related degree, for example in 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 University Courses and Qualifications for details.

Occupational hygiene is a second career for many people with them 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 to work 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 the BOHS, which can give you access to professionals, updates on industry news and advice on the career and qualifications.

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

Employers of occupational hygienists include:

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 Consultancy Directory.

Job prospects are good as roles have been created as a result of new health regulations. In addition, future hazards and problems need to be pre-empted and the risks reduced using occupational hygiene methods.

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.

The BOHS offers the following professional qualifications:

  • Certificate of Operational Competence in Occupational Hygiene - demonstrates knowledge and competence in the broad principles and practice of occupational hygiene. You must be a graduate, have at least three years' experience of comprehensive occupational hygiene practice and need to pass a written and oral exam. This qualification is required to gain Licentiate membership with the Faculty of Occupational Hygiene.
  • Diploma of Professional Competence in Occupational Hygiene - the highest professional occupational hygiene qualification. You must have already completed the Certificate qualification and need to have at least five years' experience in occupational hygiene. You'll also need to pass another oral and written exam. Once you have completed this, you're able to become a Chartered member of the Faculty.

Find out more about the routes at BOHS Examinations.

If you are a member, at any level, with the Faculty of Occupational Hygiene you 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 and also provides an online portal for recording your CPD activities.

Career prospects

The opportunities for promotion depend on the nature of the company for which you work. Undertaking further training and gaining professional qualifications, such as those offered by the 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 is also possible to develop a career internationally.

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