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Dear CareerDoctor,

I am currently a research assistant, my contract is coming to an end, and of course I have been thinking about what I may do next. My problem is finding information on the new career I have in mind--becoming a Health and Safety officer!

I am trying to work out if I would need to undertake some other qualifications or whether I could work toward these once employed in this field. I've seen some job adverts refer to NVQs and NEBOSH, but I'm not sure which is the best one to pursue.

I would be very grateful for any information you could give me.

Sylvia*

Dear Sylvia:*

Your question sent my scurrying for my acronym translator; health and safety is a field littered with capital letters! I am first going to describe and compare the different qualifications in the U.K. I will then relate the story of a lecturer who was able to break into the field and then gain a qualification to show you that jumping ships may be rare, but possible.

As your initial research suggests, there is a range of qualifications available from different organisations. You may have discovered already the CIEH (Chartered Institute of Environmental Health), RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accident and BSC (British Safety Council. However, all of these tend to offer low level qualifications that will not fully equip you for a career in health and safety.

What you really want to go for if you decide to get some training now is an IOSH-accredited diploma. The IOSH (Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) is the only U.K. professional body in this field with a Royal Charter, and, as such, is the best recognised. So much so that the IOSH "corporate membership" (referred to as MIOSH) is becoming standard criteria for recruitment and progression in the sector. And to get this corporate membership you need an IOSH accredited diploma or equivalent with a minimum of 3 years professional experience. Graduates are given the "non-corporate" membership while they gain sufficient experience, but be aware that only an IOSH accredited qualification will enable you to progress.

See the IOSH Web site for a careers section which sets out their qualification requirements. Equivalent to a IOSH accredited diploma is the NEBOSH diploma, which you mentioned in your question. NEBOSH is the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health and is also an IOSH associated organisation. Tuition for the NEBOSH Diploma itself is usually offered by training consultancies, often with a high proportion of distance learning. It is targeted at people who already work in this area and usually paid for by employers so it may not be the most cost-effective or suitable route for an individual.

Be careful not to mistake the NEBOSH diploma for the NEBOSH Certificate course (easily done!). The certificate is a much shorter (and cheaper!) qualification than the Diploma and is run by colleges and training organisations. It is not as prestigious but might help you (like most of the other low-level qualifications I mentioned above) land an assistant or trainee position. In this entry-level job you may be given the opportunity to train for the NEBOSH Diploma (make sure this has been made clear before starting the job, otherwise you may find yourself stuck in a low-level job). Another advantage of the NEBOSH Certificate is that some training centres offer a conversion course for Certificate holders to gain their diploma more quickly.

Now, would it actually be possible to move into a health and safety job without relevant qualifications? Happily, the answer is yes, as there are employers who will value specific scientific skills and knowledge above health and safety diplomas, and may be willing to recruit a "trainee." This has been the experience of Dr. Andy White, a Health and Safety Coordinator at the Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit (MRC) who was appointed directly from a lecturing post. White didn't have the health and safety qualifications and experience that usually match such a senior job, but he was able to convince his employer of the value of his scientific background. White had a lot of experience in handling dangerous agents. As he puts it "some of the risks in labs are quite specialised--few people get the chance to work with exotic chemicals, biological agents, GMOs, radiation, etc."

White had also solid evidence of his interest in health and safety on his CV. Thus when he was still a lecturer in biosciences, he took on the role of departmental health and safety representative at his university as part of his administrative duties. Academic reps are not health and safety professionals, but are involved in minimising hazards in the workplace and act as first points of contact for anyone seeking advice. Being a rep is a great way to gain some experience and insight as well as contacts in the field. White advises you to volunteer as one, even if only for a few months. Even better would be spending some time with a health and safety officer to observe their role--why not see if the Safety Office at your university is willing to offer this?

What White sees as another determining factor in his success was the way he presented his transferable skills--experience of problem solving, communicating science, and influencing people. These are all central to his new responsibilities. I encourage you to check the IOSH Web site for a brochure which should help you identify and emphasize relevant transferable skills.

Still, being able to enter the field with no specific diploma is not to say that a diploma isn't needed to work in the field. Once in the job, White trained for an IOSH-recognised diploma in Health and Safety Management at Glasgow Caledonian University by studying an afternoon and evening a week for two years while working for the MRC HGU, which cost around £3000 (paid for by his employer). "An essential need really for anyone leaving bench science and taking up a Health and Safety post--the Diploma (plus the experience) is required for professional accreditation, and enforcing authorities/courts expect to see such accreditation to establish competency and credibility," he says.

I want to finish with some final insights from White. He was honest about both the positive and negative elements of his job. He enjoys the mix of behavioural, technological, legal, and medical management it is offering him. "The work is varied and interesting because it includes both planned work--carrying out inspections and audits, giving training courses, writing safety policies for procedures and hazard avoidance--and unpredictable work--dealing with incidents, queries, and problems," he says. Still, he warns that health and safety officers need a thick skin as the job also involves being unpopular at times, and that the position can be frustrating when you see your advice ignored.

You need to think about how relevant your research experience is to health and safety issues, and identify employers who would need it. I suggest you focus your search for initial appointments on organisations within your discipline. Do not forget universities and research units, and take heart in the fact that almost half of the qualified health and safety staff at your university, for example, has Ph.D.s. However, if it doesn't look like many such institutions are going to be on the prowl for a safety officer, then you should definitely look into gaining some training now.

Good luck with your career,

The CareerDoctor

*Name has been changed