Profile: Chemical Health & Safety
You know those people who come to your lab about once a year and yell at you for putting oxidizers next to reactive metals and things like that? Somebody pays them to do that. You could get paid to do it, too!
The University of Nevada, Reno pays Ben Owens to be a Chemical Hygiene & Bio Safety Officer, and has been doing so since 1997. He’s got a B.S. in chemistry, an M.S. in biochemistry, is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), a Certified Biosafety Professional (CBSP), and a Very Nice Guy (VNG).
So, what does a health and safety officer do? Make things safe, of course. Specifically, Owens’ job involves things like keeping track of people’s chemical exposures, checking out hoods and ventilation systems and other equipment like that, making sure that the labs are safe to work in, and choosing the right protective gear for people to wear in the labs. He also deals with things like chemical waste disposal, air and water and environmental permitting, emergency planning and response, and fire safety.
His day-to-day has a lot of variety, which is good, he says. “Typical days include conducting laboratory safety assessments, writing reports, developing safety policies, and meeting with laboratory personnel to discuss various chemical health and safety issues associated with their research projects. I spend time in the office and out in laboratories and other work areas,” Owens said.
As an undergrad, Owens developed an interest in toxicology, which grew when he was a grad student in biochem. About the time he was finishing up his Master’s, he met some undergrads that were getting degrees in industrial hygiene. Intrigued, Owens talked to a faculty adviser in the field, and decided that a career in EH&S was the life for him.
Now, before you go running off to get a job in Chemical Health & Safety, know this: you need some additional training. Owens did coursework equivalent to that of an undergrad degree in industrial hygiene, which was necessary, he said. But you can get a master’s degree in industrial hygiene or some other EH&S type discipline. You need this even if you have a PhD, Owens said.
“A Ph.D. is not necessary to work in chemical health and safety or industrial hygiene as they are applied fields,” Owens said. “However, a PhD can be an advantageous for high level technical or management positions, or consulting.” (Translation: a PhD = more of the dollars.)
For a current grad student wanting to get into this type of work, Owens suggests maybe working as a student employee in your university Environmental Health and Safety Office (perhaps in lieu of TAing?), or getting a summer internship (maybe like one of these). Also, he says to get as much coursework as you can under your belt, in topics like industrial hygiene, hazardous waste management, environmental chemistry/science, and toxicology.
As far as job prospects go, Owens said they’re pretty good, but it does depend on the economy. (Doesn’t everything?) “The field doesn’t seem to be overcrowded, at least not for those that are technically well trained and ambitious,” he said. But if you don’t have any practical experience, it can be kind of hard, which is why it’s good to get experience as a student. “Large companies and government facilities generally have more extensive management structure, and therefore, more growth opportunities,” Owens said. So, yeah. Go big or go home, apparently.
And, for balance, here’s a video of Theo Gray blowing stuff up: