June 20, 2017 / Jill James

The Incidental Safety Professional

“What do you do for a living?”

Safety professional...safety engineer...environmental health and safety…industrial hygiene…chief safety officer...


Wouldn’t these interactions be easier if you could answer with “accountant?” Everybody understands that one.

And yet, here we are, working in the field of occupational health and safety, a vocational category people do not understand instantly or without some further explanation.

Why is that?

Maybe it’s because most college campuses don’t have a program for it. Or maybe it’s because those of us doing the work are a pretty small cohort, or have other job responsibilities in addition to safety.

How many of you knew since you were a kid that you wanted a career in workplace safety? When you started your first job, did you think you’d wind up working in occupational health and safety? When you started college, did you know you were chasing a degree in the safety field?

I bet not many of us.

Dr. Todd Loushine at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater and I have been professional friends for 20 years. Recently, he was giving a keynote address on the safety profession and asked a question of his audience: “How many of you are incidental safety professionals?”—meaning this career isn’t what you set out to do, or, rather, the career found you, not the other way around.

Hands shot up.

Like many of you, I, too, am an incidental safety professional.

In my early twenties, I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree in Community Health Education. In order to complete the degree, I needed an internship. My college program gave me a list of organizations accepting interns. I scanned the list: county public health office, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, Red Cross—the list went on and on. At the very bottom was this entry: Safety, Department of Transportation.

Safety? Safety. Sounds boring. Sounds like there wouldn’t be a lot of competition for that internship. I decided to apply for it, not knowing then what I was getting into.

Frankly, I would rather have had one of the other “cooler” sounding choices. Jobs were competitive in the classic community health field, and the people who were getting hired often had an additional nursing degree so they could serve dual purposes.

Before I knew it, I was having coffee with a safety professional at the Department of Transportation (DOT), talking about the internship, which I subsequently landed.

I spent my undergrad doing peer education at my campus health service, teaching sexually transmitted infection prevention (it was the height of the AIDS epidemic), stress reduction, and conducting body fat analysis. Certainly I wouldn’t be using this knowledge at the DOT!

Seatbelt use was the first topic I found myself covering with a large group of DOT employees, using an emotional video called Room to Live as my hook. Soon I was learning about trenching, environmental hazards, roadwork, roadkill, and getting offers to operate the “wing” of a snow plow on ride-alongs.

The DOT employed safety professionals all over the state and they were all telling me the same thing: "Kid, if you want to be employable and have a way to pay off your student debt, do what we did and get your Master of Industrial Safety degree at the University of Minnesota."

Having no other plans and thinking this safety gig was okay…

Editor’s note: Continue reading on Vivid Learning Systems’ blog.

Jill James

Jill James is Chief Safety Officer at Vivid Learning Systems. She has an MA in Industrial Safety from the University of Minnesota Duluth and a BS in Community Health Education.


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