Do you notice that nearly all consultants or EHS professionals writing for ISHN have letters (acronyms for titles) after their name? If you want to advance in the EHS field, you’ll need letters after your name, too.

Why? Letters are a short-hand way of marking your achievements. Academic letters such as the A.S., B.S., M.S., or Ph.D., or EHS/professional letters including PE, RS, OHST, CSP, CIH and the CHMM, improve your opportunity to obtain or retain a job and get better pay. Letters also enhance your standing in the EHS community, if that’s important to you.

Academic letters

Be very careful with who supplies your academic letters. You could break a state law if you use academic letters from a supplier that is not accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. government. You could also violate employment agreements or face ethics charges from organizations to which you belong.

In Oregon, for example, it’s illegal to add academic letters such as BS to your name on any business correspondence — resume, business cards, etc. — if the letters were obtained from a degree supplier, or a diploma mill, that is not authorized by the state. In one case, Oregon has allowed use of such letters provided a disclaimer such as “this degree is not valid in the state of Oregon” accompanies the letters on all business correspondence. But what does putting an asterisk and disclaimers to academic letters really say about a person?

Degree disclaimers, though, may not lessen legal liability under other state laws. In 2005, Michigan passed a law that allows for a penalty up to $100,000 if a person uses academic letters from a diploma mill to promote themselves in association with any business or trade. State law in Maine, also passed in 2005, ups the ante on this issue by providing imprisonment up to one year. And Kentucky is expected to pass a law in 2006 making use of a false academic degree a felony, with a maximum penalty of up to five years in jail.

EHS/professional letters

Although they are very important, you do not need academic letters to have a future in the EHS field. EHS letters, such as the OHST (Occupational Health and Safety Technologists®), are available to persons that have at least five years of qualified work experience but don’t have an academic degree. For more information on the OHST, and similar letters, visit the Web site

You need to be careful in obtaining EHS/professional letters, too. There are essentially no legal restrictions on who can supply EHS letters. Many EHS letter suppliers have ties to diploma mills, while other suppliers simply seek buyers for EHS letters as a way to generate income.

It’s hard to separate the good from the bad guys among EHS letters suppliers. Size and perceived reputation is not enough to go on. Several international and U.S.-based EHS organizations and associations appear reputable on the surface, but if you look at their founding Board of Directors — people who created the business — you will find people who use academic letters, primarily the Ph.D., after their name from non-accredited degree suppliers.

The old adage that the “acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree” is a good caveat to consider. Regardless of how well an EHS organization/association may disguise itself today, don’t be lured into buying letters that may be worthless or tainted as more information about some of these suppliers is disclosed. Do your homework on the history of EHS letter suppliers. Just because your friend thought the letters were OK, does not mean they’re a good investment for you.

Good letters

The best EHS/professional letters to have are those that may be required by state license. The PE (Professional Engineer) and RS (Registered Sanitarian) are examples. EHS letters mentioned, though rarely exclusively required, in state or federal regulations, such as the CIH (Certified Industrial Hygienist), CSP (Certified Safety Professional), and CHMM (Certified Hazardous Materials Manager) also have good appeal.

Employers may also value certain EHS letters. American Axel Manufacturing and Daimler-Chrysler, for example, encourage and support union safety and health representatives to obtain the OHST. If your employer, or future employer, values certain EHS/professional letters, that should be a good enough reason to obtain them.

Seal of approval

The uncontrolled growth of EHS letters, of which there are more than 300 designations today, has forced some suppliers to distinguish themselves from the pack. They obtain accreditation for their letters from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and/or the Council of Engineering and Scientific Specialty Boards (CESB). The CSP has gone further by obtaining recognition from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) — the only EHS letters today to meet this high achievement.

You should avoid EHS/professional letter designations that are not recognized by the NCCA and/or CESB. Accept no substitutes or sound-alike names to NCCA or CESB.

Not cheap, nor easy

Obtaining and maintaining EHS letters is not cheap, especially if you own more than one designation. I estimate that the CIH, CSP, and CHMM letters I own cost me about $1,000 a year to maintain. Each requires me to acquire enough certification maintenance (CM) points, in categories such as continuing education, to keep the letters alive. Are they worth the cost? Absolutely. As a consultant, there are many jobs I could not get without these letters.

It should come as no surprise that the best EHS letters might also be the hardest to obtain. First, there’s an eligibility hurdle. Then you must qualify by examination. For many people, the harder it was to obtain the letters, the more they respect and care about them. If you fail to get the letters the first time around, keep pursuing them.

Sidebar: Key questions on EHS letters

Are the academic letters you want, or have, legal and ethical?

Are the EHS letters you want recognized by NCCA or CESB?

Has the letter supplier ever enforced its code of ethics?

Does your employer, or future employer, value the EHS letters you want?

Have you thoroughly researched the history and value of EHS letters?