We probably have more credentials in the environmental health and safety field than any other profession in the world. This could be because our field is very broad and complex. Or because it’s not one profession but a mixture of many different jobs.

Whatever the reasons, confusion over credentials is a problem for both professionals and employers. Today there are nearly 160 EHS credentials and the number keeps growing. Consider these issues:

  • Most employers want an employee or job candidate to hold an EHS credential — so which ones do they rule out?
  • Which credential(s) should you spend your time and money on?
  • Since the EHS field is requiring more generalized work, which credential should someone new to the field pursue first?
  • Does a person certified in safety, industrial hygiene, or hazardous materials also require a certification in auditing or training?
  • Some credentials require that you work in a specified skill area most of the time to maintain the credential. If you hold two or more certifications in different areas, how can you work in each of them a majority of the time?

What's in a name?

To be sure, the need for specialty credentials in the EHS field has been around for many years, and specialty credentials are valuable. For example, in the late 1970s, I worked for a public health department. My job often entailed providing advice on how to control pests in buildings. My employer, for liability purposes, required me to become a Certified Pesticide Applicator (public health aspect) before I could specify to the public or a business the type of pesticide that would be most effective in getting rid of a pest.

In the early 1980s, I was required by another employer to become a Certified Visible Emission Reader. This credential qualified my ability to visually determine the opacity of dust or smoke that was necessary to meet air pollution permit specifications.

But today there are so many similar sounding credentials that employers are confused. You can be certified in safety as a professional, executive, manager, or specialist. You also can be registered as a safety practitioner, professional, or technician.

In hazardous materials, you can be certified as a manager, executive, supervisor, technician, specialist, master, or expert.

Industrial hygiene credentials include certified industrial hygienist, certified industrial hygiene manager, certified industrial hygiene officer, registered professional industrial hygienist, and professional hygiene diplomat.

Most of us working in the EHS field claim to be generalists. But each year we see more and more specialist credentials pop up — covering auditing, training, ergonomics, indoor air quality, accident reconstruction, workers’ compensation, fire, injury prevention, and so on. Behavioral safety credentials? They are not here yet, but they’re coming. Specialty credentials may eventually be created for every conceivable area of EHS expertise.

Comparison shopping

What are the quality differences between a certified safety professional, certified safety manager, and registered safety practitioner? Most people in the EHS field, and especially employers, cannot really answer this question. There is no matrix that effectively compares and contrasts all EHS credentials.

Accreditation boards have been set up to “vouch” for the credibility of some EHS credentials. But given that there may be more than one EHS credential in an area of expertise, there is not just one accreditation board.

It comes down to the argument that “my credential is better than your credential.” This debate is very hard for any side to win. It is very hard to spot an outright bogus EHS credential. Some credentials, however, are and will remain inferior to others.

EHS credentials that have been around for many years are probably more credible than ones new to the market. But over several years, comparable credentials may not be that different.

Few credentials come into the field that are truly difficult for most of us to achieve. Generally, most people are “grandfathered” by experience into a new credential without any testing. During the first few years when testing is required, the questions and a passing score are relatively easy. After a few years, tests become more difficult as the most under-qualified people are screened out to maintain the value and credibility of the designation.

Some people now shy away from well-established credentials because of the difficulty in passing the exams. For example, about 50 percent of applicants will fail a CIH exam the first time they take it. People may lean toward low-road alternative credentials instead of ones with more quality control.

What to do

Keep in mind the two key reasons why someone obtains an EHS credential: Personal and professional pride (or vanity); and job advancement. Many studies show credentials lead to higher compensation. Before you select a credential, consider the type of job and employer you want to work for, and then compare credentials that will help you get where you want to go.

Also keep in mind that organizations and businesses create and market credentials for three prime reasons: to serve their membership; to establish a method to identify qualified people; and to make money. Making money is a big motivator behind the creation of many EHS credentials. There are few EHS credential services set up as not-for-profit corporations. Take a close look at the groups behind the certifications, their structure and history. The Internet is a great tool for researching certifications.

Also, ask questions. What certifications are popular with professionals in your organization, industry, or local community? The marketplace will determine the fate of all EHS credentials. If the credential is not viewed as valuable, it will eventually die on the vine.