"Industrial Hygiene" is an oddly named field, isn't it?
September 22, 2022 12:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a mid-career malaise and am considering pursuing an MPH with an Industrial Hygiene focus/traineeship. I am curious: do you or someone you know have an IH background, and what are you, or they, doing with it? Would you recommend the field?

Some details:

I'm in California, and I'd most likely pursue this education in order to seek a job in a regulatory agency (most likely occupational safety and health or similar), or some other public sector role at the local level.

I do have a background in organized labor, and my understanding is that union locals, state and local labor federations, and the AFL-CIO have all defunded or deleted their occupational safety and health organizing arms in the last 20 years. Any insight into whether the pendulum is swinging the other way are very welcome, though obviously I'd need to pursue this degree for less speculative reasons.

Part of my motivation is to change the amount and type of work I do around computers. The migration of everything to computers and Zoom during the pandemic has done a real number on my daily mental well-being, and I'd like to reduce the amount of time I spend in front of a computer, and for my computer work to be very bounded, deliverables-oriented work. (i.e. I'm happy to type notes into a database until the sun comes up, but Zoom calls and emails about minutia are terrible, and Slack would likely kill me in a quick two weeks.) But do people in the occupational safety and health field actually get stuck in front of computers all day now, too?

I am very aware that you can't just get a civil service job because you want one, and so I'm a bit nervous that I'd be left with a useless degree, applying for and not getting entry-level Cal-OSHA jobs once a year until I die. Outside a public sector agency or a global petrochemical corporation, what are some other places with this background end up?

I'm making all of the financial considerations about two years of lost wages, students loans, etc. etc. but that's not my focus with this question.

posted by kensington314 to Work & Money (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can I ask, why only local government? USAJobs shows a few dozen industrial hygienist jobs, scattered across the country.
posted by praemunire at 1:31 PM on September 22 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, I may have been unclear: I meant public sector jobs at the local level in addition to the state or Federal regulatory/OSH jobs that one would typically think of. But my question is broader still: just what have people done with this training, including but not limited to the regulatory side?
posted by kensington314 at 1:37 PM on September 22

Best answer: A friend of mine with an MPH did occupational health and safety/compliance work for a company that provided those services on a contract basis to other companies - mostly small biotech companies (this was in the Boston area, where biotech startups abound). I think she spent a lot of her time actually inspecting labs (and driving/biking to said labs) but I think she did also have to produce some educational materials and do powerpoint presentations and stuff. When I worked in academic/medical labs at larger organizations, there was always someone in charge of occupational safety stuff, sometimes just as part of their job but sometimes there was a full-time dedicated person (depending on the size of the facility and department).

I would guess other kinds of R&D labs and manufacturers also need these kinds of services?

My impression is that this kind of consulting/contracting is pretty exhausting, because even though the company is hiring you to tell them how to be safe and comply with regulations, you can't actually make them follow your recommendations! But that seems to be true of a lot of industrial hygiene type positions.
posted by mskyle at 2:04 PM on September 22 [1 favorite]

I have an MPH but don’t work in the field (but have looked in to it). I will highly recommend that you think ahead (and look at job postings) to make sure that you will get the experience and credentials that are needed for the field. Many MPH programs tend to be geared towards epi, program management (across different content areas) or bio stats and will not cover industrial hygiene in a meaningful way.

Also be aware that many more people have entered public health since 2020. This isn’t a bad thing, but be aware of it. (I graduated in 2020 and had someone at my internship day that public health was already saturated from people entering following the beginning of the HIV epidemic, clearly there are other public health issues that need to be addressed and have arisen as well).
posted by raccoon409 at 2:40 PM on September 22 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in EHS , not specifically IH although I do have some experience. Here are some of my thoughts, reading through your question:

But do people in the occupational safety and health field actually get stuck in front of computers all day now, too? Yes,ish. That is a big part of the job. Depending on what kind of EHS job you get, generally there is time spent on the shop floor, but also a lot of time spent in front of computers writing reports about what you found on the shop floor. (Shop floor is interchangable for whatever environment you end up doing EHS in. It can be anything from outdoor oil rigging work to manufacturing to a hospital or university environment). As mskyle points out, a lot (A LOT) of the job is convincing people to do things and spend resources on programs they may not necessarily value. Without having any actual authority over them.

I've been in the EHS field for almost 10 years in some capacity or another, and know of very, very few people at any level that have come from getting a degree in EHS/an academic background. It's very much a job where you work your way up. Even OSH inspectors need to have real-world experience to do their job well. My degree is in Linguistics and Chinese. I would not bother getting a masters to go into IH or EHS. Get some training and on-the-job experience, and look into getting an ASP certification. People who focus on Environmental are the exception - that is very academic and driven by regulation. I have seen a lot of people diving into that field directly from school.

If I were you, I would not limit yourself to IH. There are trained ergonomists and other specialists, but the jobs are few and far in between. You'll have more choices available if you go for just a general EHS career path.

One of my dream jobs used to be an OSHA field inspector, but after talking to a few ex-OSHA people, I have dropped that. When OSHA shows up, people have 1 of 2 reactions -- either they freak out, or they play hardass (the second option is better, and what companies have to do to protect themselves.) Working with people at their worst and seeing you as an adversary is draining. There are better EHS jobs where you work to develop culture and help others in a much more positive way.

I love my job most of the time, but I will say when it's bad, it's very bad. Most other jobs are not dealing with life-or-death situations.. I haven't had that yet, but I have had to deal with the fallout of very serious, life-changing accidents and it's difficult. It's way more stressful than missing a deadline. Safety is also very much a people job. It has a lot of similarities with Human Resources. Lots of dealing with individuals and larger, corporate-level policy creation. I think it's something that you have to have some level of personal interest in or passion for in order to make it a long-term career.

If you have any other specific questions, feel free to memail me. And yes, I never understood why they call it "Industrial Hygiene" either.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 5:55 PM on September 22 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I would reiterate everything Sparky Buttons says above, and also add that "working your way up" is partly because the safety situation at different industries can be quite different, because they each have a different constellation of hazards that overlap in odd ways, with varying levels of risk/priority depending on their specific configurations.

...I have seen a person coming in with generalized academic EHS knowledge being required to take an entry level position on the shop floor for a year (like, literally, "OK, now you're an apprentice fitter") before being promoted back into their actual job where they could start to build the trust & authority they needed to influence things. That was probably an outlier, but nobody (besides me) seemed to be particularly surprised by it, so I guess it can happen?
posted by aramaic at 6:21 PM on September 22 [1 favorite]

[another thing: if you get into this field, be very aware that you WILL be exposed to photographs of hideous injuries and tales of horrible horrible death, even if you're lucky enough to not encounter it directly. If I close my eyes I can STILL see what happens to human flesh in a high-current arc flash injury, what happens if someone isn't paying attention with a high-pressure washer, and I will never ever forget what happens if you step into a shot blaster, drop your phone, watch it tumble through the catwalk grating, and you then reach down to grab it... Should he have done that? No. Did his reflex deserve that result? Oh god no. Oh, god my god dear baby jesus no. Helping people avoid those outcomes is honorable, but it can be really really rough when nobody listens to you, nobody helps, everyone actively avoids the guards you personally put in place to prevent this outcome, and then you see ... you see what happened to that kid, never mind the actual sounds of it. I may actually go puke again. Jesus fuck, I was not expecting to remember that tonight. This is not to dissuade you, but fuck, I don't want to be within ten feet of a shot blaster for the rest of my goddamn life.]
posted by aramaic at 7:45 PM on September 22 [3 favorites]

« Older A Dress for an Apple to PICK Apples in   |   How to reset my sense of smell? (encountered a... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments