studentPosted with permission from WUSF News.

When most people hear the phrase "occupational health and safety," they probably think of OSHA, the federal government organization that regulates workplace health and safety. Others may just think of researchers in huge moon suits, breathing through respirators like Darth Vader while they investigate some on-the-job mishap.

René Salazar wants students to think differently about the kinds of careers they can find under the occupational health and safety umbrella.

According to the assistant professor in the University of South Florida's (USF) Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, “You might be working for a sheriff’s office, you might be working with risk management, you might be working for a chemical facility, you might be working as a consultant on your own, you might be working for an energy generation facility.”

Salazar was speaking at the Summer Institute in Occupational Health and Safety, presented by the Sunshine Education and Resource Center (SERC) at the USF College of Public Health.

During the recent institute, the students heard from experts about possible jobs and how to get the education they’ll need to pursue those careers.

They also got to out into the field, where they visited biohazard labs, a company that calibrates safety equipment, and the Risk Management Bureau of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which has seen a reduction in both on-duty and off-duty injuries since the bureau was created.

“We talked with them at length about how to protect their workers," said Salazar, "not only at work, but how to improve the health of the workers on a personal basis because we’re all very concerned about the total worker health, of the worker, of the person, of the individual.”

The students in the institute were a mix of juniors, seniors and recent graduates, like Andrea Anger, a former firefighter who had just received her Bachelor of Sciences in Public Health from USF.

“A lot of people (attending the institute) don’t know what they were getting themselves into, so they have discovered that this is not what they want to do," said Anger, who will be doing an internship at the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration in Maryland. "This is something I am passionate about, and it’s cool to see that the College of Public Health is reaching out to everybody and really trying to help everybody realize what’s out there and what’s available.”

That outreach included inviting students from colleges around the country for two purposes: show them exactly what the field is about and convince them that USF is the place to pursue a graduate degree in it.

While David Maniez is going to be a senior studying biology at Alma College in Michigan, he’s now considering occupational health and safety as a career, with USF as a possible stop on that path.

“I’m doing my internship at a manufacturing facility and I set up a lot of the safety and compliance with OSHA standards. To be able to actually come and see the school side of things, where I could actually go on further and be the guy coming into a place like that, doing the testing, seeing the other side of the table, it kind of opens up a lot of opportunities," said Maniez, who's looking specifically at industrial hygiene.

“I’m not the type to be a lab rat, I can’t necessarily do the same thing two days in a row, so being able to go out and do air quality, sound, chemical exposure, checking out a lot of different things is kind of what I like to do,” he said.

Professor Salazar says that opportunities in occupational health and safety are growing by the day. The workforce is getting older, with projections of a shortfall of employees not too far off in the future.

“We need these people trained, and so the best that we can do and one of the ways to do this is to introduce students into the field and then let them decide for themselves whether they love it or not," Salazar said.

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