How to Become an Environmental Health Specialist

A career as an environmental health specialist is ideal for people who want to study natural sciences and learn how environmental factors impact human health. People who study environmental health go on to work in medicine, public health and advocacy, environmental research, toxicology and more.

Learn about the job requirements, skills and education required to become an environmental health specialist.

What Does an Environmental Health Specialist Do?

Environmental health specialists conduct research or investigate environmental hazards and toxic exposures that may affect individual or population health. Typically, their primary responsibility is to identify and control exposures. They also plan, coordinate and run inspection programs for compliance with health, safety and environmental regulations.

Here are some job responsibilities an environmental health specialist may be required to perform:

  • Inspect multiple types of facilities such as storage tanks, hazardous materials facilities, landfills and drinking water systems.
  • Identify and report on infractions of health regulations.
  • Use epidemiological data to assess risk and develop policy. 
  • Investigate environmental health concerns on high risk populations.
  • Provide feedback to organizations, including effective interventions or preventive safety measures.
  • Develop strategies to improve health security in response to pandemics or natural disasters.

Important Skills Required for Environmental Health Specialists

Professionals in this field often need to have technology and scientific skills. Written and oral communication skills are important, especially when working in a consulting or advocacy role. Examples of skills include:

  • Knowledge of enterprise resource planning software
  • Knowledge and background in natural sciences
  • Persuasive communication
  • Deductive and inductive reasoning
  • Service orientation (focus on helping people)
  • Critical thinking and scientific reasoning skills

Common Steps to Become an Environmental Health Specialist

If a career as an environmental health specialist is of interest to you, here are the steps you’ll need to follow to become one.

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree.
  2. Gain relevant work experience.
  3. Consider a master’s degree.
  4. Earn certifications.
  5. Find a job.

Step 1. Get a Bachelor’s Degree

According to O*Net education data, 70% of jobs for environmental scientists and specialists require a bachelor’s degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates most jobs require at least a bachelor’s in a natural science or related field like engineering or geosciences. 

Because of the nature of the job, science classes like biology, chemistry and microbiology will be required. Students can typically earn bachelor’s degrees in these areas if their school does not offer undergraduate programs in environmental health. These classes are often required when applying to master’s programs.

If you pursue a Bachelor of Science in environmental health, your courses may include environment law compliance, ergonomics, occupational safety and industrial hygiene. Undergraduate research methods courses and laboratory or internship experience are recommended.

Step 2. Gain Work Experience in Environment Health

Work experience helps you develop the skills required to excel as an environmental health specialist. Depending on the position, previous experience may be a qualification to apply. Therefore, look for opportunities to gain some real-world experience. Internships are an excellent source of experience. These are some organizations that offer environmental health internships:

Alternatively, some organizations—including the ones mentioned above—have entry-level positions that may offer specialized training. Unlike other areas of public health, there may be more entry-level opportunities available to those with only a bachelor’s degree in environmental health.

If you are planning to pursue a master’s degree and/or certifications, work experience can make you a more competitive applicant.

Step 3. Consider a Master’s Degree

According to O*Net education data, 26% of environmental scientist and specialist jobs require a master’s degree. A master’s degree may be required for some entry-level jobs or senior positions.

There are a few options for a master’s in environmental health. Students can earn a Master of Science in public health or environmental health. They may also be able to pursue a Master of Public Health with a concentration in environmental health. Many students prefer to pursue an online MPH program for flexibility, especially if they are working full time.

Students will complete foundational coursework in topics such as epidemiology, waste management, environmental risk assessment and climate change. Courses offered vary based on program and concentration. Master’s students will also be required to do research and complete a master’s thesis.

Step 4. Earn Certifications

Some jobs require some training regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In some cases, this training may involve a certification.

Even though not all jobs require certifications, they can be worthwhile as they help prove your skill level and knowledge. Pursuing a certification can help you stand out in the application process.

Many people in this field choose to pursue the registered environmental health specialist credential. This is administered by the National Environmental Health Association. Receiving this credential involves an exam demonstrating competency in a range of environmental health issues.

Step 5. Find a Job and Work as Environment Health Specialist

After pursuing at least an undergraduate education, you’ll be able to apply to a number of environmental health jobs with private companies, consulting firms, government entities and labs. Any previous work experience or certifications can make you a more competitive applicant, but they may not be required depending on the position.

These are some job titles you may find in environmental health if you have a bachelor’s or master’s degree:

  • Health Officer
  • Environmental, Health and Safety Consultant
  • Environmental Health Worker Clinical
  • Environmental Health Supervisor
  • Health and Safety Manager

Career Outlook and Salary Expectations

There are a wide range of career options in environmental health. The type of company or industry may impact salary. The top paying industries for environmental scientists and specialists, including health, all had an annual mean wage over $100,000 in 2019, according to BLS wage data. These industries were:

  • Natural gas distribution
  • Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods
  • Federal government
  • Oil and gas extraction
  • Wholesale electronic markets and agents and brokers

The category with the highest concentration of employment was management, scientific, and technical consulting services. The annual mean wage for this industry was $79,650 in 2019, according to the BLS wage data.

Environmental scientists and specialists earned a median annual wage of $71,360 in 2019, the BLS reported. The highest-earning 10% in this occupation category received over $124,760. The BLS projects an 8% increase in jobs for environmental scientists, including health scientists, from 2018 to 2028—more than the average across all occupations. Growing, complex public health concerns may contribute to job demand in this field.

Work Settings for Environmental Health Specialists

Professionals in this field often work for federal, state and local government. According to BLS wage data, the largest employers of environmental health scientists and specialists in 2019 were:

  • Management, scientific and technical consulting services
  • State government
  • Engineering services
  • Local government
  • Federal government

While many public health jobs are office-based, environmental health can have more variety. The typical setting for environmental health specialists involves a combination of working in the field as well as a laboratory or office: 57% of O*Net survey respondents said they work outdoors about once per week. Environmental health specialists may perform field inspections in parks, industrial plants, factories, schools and other offices.

Environmental Health Specialist vs. Environmental Health Scientist

These two professions work on similar problems and in similar contexts. However, environmental health scientists are more likely to focus on applying the scientific method to help with complex problem-solving. This may include taking back polluted land, controlling environmental impact and making recommendations to public health officials.

Environmental Health Specialist vs. Registered Environmental Health Specialist

Registered environmental health specialists (REHS) usually perform inspections for the government or private sector. In addition, those with the REHS certification have completed an exam to prove their competence in environmental health issues. Certain jobs may require this credential; others may give preference to applicants with this certification.

Environmental Health Specialist vs. Occupational Health and Safety Specialists

Occupational health and safety specialists are professionals who work to ensure the safety and health of people in the workplace. They may focus on non-environmental issues such as safety signage, fall protection and personal protective equipment. In contrast, environmental health specialists focus on the health and well-being of people in non-occupational settings. This concentration looks at population health on a larger scale than occupational health and safety.

Information last updated May 2020