A recent study by NIOSH examines the demographics of the occupational health and safety field.

NIOSH’s estimate of 48,660 OS&H professionals in 2010 includes only pros with at least a bachelor's degree in occupational safety, industrial hygiene, occupational medicine, occupational health nursing and five other related disciplines.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2008 estimated Occupational Safety & Health specialists held 55,800 jobs. Two in five of those jobs were in the government. The BLS OHS designation includes environmental protection specialists. NIOSH does not account for the environmental discipline because its Educational Resource Centers do not offer training in environmental protection.

Most employers not hiring

The depressing impact of the country’s economic travails of the past 2-3 years is strikingly evident in the NIOSH study. Almost two-thirds of the employers surveyed said they had not tried to hire anyone in the occupational safety field in the past two years.

The job market for industrial hygienists is worse. Eighty-one percent of employers had not tried to hire anyone for an industrial hygiene job in the past two years.

Numbers were equally if not more discouraging for occupational medicine (88 percent of employers not hiring), occupational health nursing (85 percent of employers not hiring), and occupational ergonomics (92 percent of employers not hiring in past two years).

Who replaces the retirees?

Given that most employers have made no attempt to hire any type of OS&H pro in the past two years, it will be interesting to see how employers respond to the coming wave of retirements in the OS&H profession.

Safety professionals are older as a group than industrial hygienists. According to NIOSH, 48 percent — almost half the field — are 50 years or older. Forty percent of industrial hygienists are 50 or older.

About 39 percent of employers told NIOSH they plan to hire an OS&H pro in the next five years. NIOSH puts the total at more than 25,000 new hires.

That’s discouraging. Almost 60 percent of employers will not hire an OS&H pro in the next 5 years?

Even the number with hiring plans seems optimistic. Look at recent hiring practices and employment strategies across U.S. industry, where there is lean staffing and greater reliance on independent contractors, temps and part-timers. Plus, technology is allowing employers to get more productivity from fewer workers.

And consider a possible survey bias: If you as an employer were asked in a web-based poll if you planned to hire any OS&H pros in the next five years, how responsible would you appear if you said no?

Bottom line: U.S. industry will show how much it truly values occupational safety and health and how much it is ready to invest in it between 2011-2015.

Professional vs. practitioner

NIOSH’s definition could draw the line between professional and practitioner, always a source of confusion when trying to estimate the total workforce of employees tasked with workplace safety and health responsibilities. There are many more practitioners in the EHS field than NIOSH’s definition of a pro. Individuals who do not hold a degree in one of the related disciplines; individuals who work only part-time on EHS tasks. In ISHN’s study of the EHS Nation in 2011, 25 percent of respondents handled EHS work on a part-time basis. Sixty percent did not have a degree in one of the EHS-related disciplines.

Plus, NIOSH did not survey employers with less than 100 employees. In small businesses, owners, plant managers, HR directors, quality managers and others often handle safety.

Thus, the actual number of employees in the U.S. handling EHS work is much higher than NIOSH’s more narrowly defined estimate.

NIOSH estimates that there are 28,722 occupational safety professionals and 7,348 industrial hygienists.

You can see where NIOSH is missing part of the EHS Nation by looking at the memberships of the American Society of Safety Engineers (33,000+) and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (10,000+).

NIOSH does account for the multi-disciplinary scope of occupational safety and health work. NIOSH estimates only 25 percent of industrial hygienists work 100 percent of their time on industrial hygiene.

Thirty-seven percent of occupational safety professionals spend 100 percent of their time on safety. But 25 percent spend less their half their time on specifically safety-related job functions.