Jobs in health and safety often appeal to those wishing to leave the lab. It's not an easy move, but experience or qualifications can make it smoother, explains Caroline Tolond

Jobs in health and safety often appeal to those wishing to leave the lab. It’s not an easy move, but experience or qualifications can make it smoother, explains Caroline Tolond

Q  I am working as a synthetic organic chemist and want some advice about where to go next. After some reflection I have decided that it’s time to change track and do something different. I feel at my age it’s a question of now or never, but know that it will probably involve some form of re-training. I want to try and utilise the chemical knowledge that I have acquired and have been thinking about jobs in health and safety. Do you have any advice or information related to either of these areas? 

A career in health and safety (sometimes referred to as health, safety and the environment, HS&E) is one that is attractive to many people looking to move out of the lab and on to a different path. However, getting a job in this area has an element of ’chicken and egg’ about it - you often need experience to make the move and it can be difficult to get the experience without a health and safety job. 

So how do you get a foot in the door? It can simply be about being in the right place at the right time. In July 2007 Chemistry World  published a profile of a member’s career that started in process technology and then switched to an environment, health and safety adviser role. The profile demonstrates that the heath and safety training chemical scientists receive on the job can facilitate a career transition, especially if the career move can be made internally with your current employer.

Experience in a specialist area, such as the nuclear sector, can also open doors. For example, there are currently positions available for chemical scientists with relevant experience with the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which is part of the Health and Safety Executive. Health and safety is a career path that crosses all sectors, with positions also available in universities and, for academics having a career re-think, it is possible to make a career move from lecturing to this career path.

Alternatively, if you are in a role that has some responsibility for health and safety but no options of an internal move, then you could enhance your prospects by taking a qualification in this area, which would demonstrate commitment to any future employer. A good first step would be to take the National Exam Board for Occupational Safety and Health(referred to as NEBOSH) general certificate. The certificate provides a foundation to health and safety practices and can be achieved through evening classes, although it isn’t a guaranteed passport to employment in the health and safety arena.   

Recruiters in high-risk environments, such as those in the chemical sciences, often favour candidates who already hold the higher level NEBOSH Diploma. This preference is more keenly felt in the current economic climate, as the cost of training a new employee to diploma level can be prohibitive. Even alternative training routes such as NVQs are expensive in terms of not only money, but also time.

If your role doesn’t have a health and safety element, you could investigate whether it’s possible to get a secondment or to shadow a health and safety colleague in your organisation. Make the most of such experience on your CV. The experience should be listed at the top of your career history, preferably in a ’relevant experience’ section making it easy for an employer to identify why you are applying and what you have to offer. 

Whichever route you take, make sure you glean as much information as possible before you start. Get a rounded view of the positions available by reading through job adverts and talk to those already in the field, either face to face or online via the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health online careers discussion board. Good luck with the move.