Occupational Health Degrees in Public Health

Public health applies to a variety of fields. Much of the attention on public health lies in fields that are tuned to the interactive and educational aspects of public health. However, certain aspects of society such as employment call on professionals to help provide safe, efficient workplaces and manufacturing environments.

A degree in occupational health will prepare students to create healthier communities and workplaces, create and promote sustainable workplace environments, develop emergency response and disaster planning and much more. 

In this article, we answer students’ frequently asked questions about occupational health, degrees and careers.  

What is Occupational Health?

Occupational health is a subset of health care covering all aspects of health and safety specific to the workplace. Occupational health services include employee wellness, ergonomics, occupational therapy and occupational medicine. All types of workplaces settings benefit from occupational health, including traditional office spaces, construction worksites, and industrial and manufacturing settings. 

What does occupational health do?

Occupational health is about educating employees, preventing injury, and reducing hazards in the workplace. The focus is to minimize risk factors at the workplace associated with cancers, accidents, hearing and vision loss, stress disorders, and musculoskeletal, respiratory, circulatory  and communicable diseases.

What is the difference between environmental health and occupational health?

Environmental health and occupational health tend to be lumped together; however, there are distinct differences. Occupational health involves identifying and controlling workplace risk factors that may harm employees, along with promoting proper health and safety techniques. Environmental health focuses on the health and safety of individuals but on a broader scale. Environmental health professionals minimize health risks associated with poor air, soil, and water quality and look into how people interact with their environment. 

What is the difference between occupational health and occupational safety?

Occupational health and occupational safety go hand in hand, but are different. Occupational health protects the overall health and wellness of employees, while occupational safety reduces potential hazards in the workplace that could cause injury. 

Bachelor’s in Occupational Health Programs

Each day millions of Americans come home from work safely in part because of the efforts of dedicated safety professionals. With a bachelor’s degree in occupational health, professionals who are passionate about human safety will have the ability to help keep the workers safe. 

These four-year programs are often in a university’s school of public health and usually have GPA and prerequisite course requirements to be accepted into the school. Personal statements and interviews might also be part of the admission process.

This major prepares students for a variety of occupational safety and health program management positions in the private and public sectors. The courses will teach critical thinking, hazard identification and prioritization, problem solving, cost effectiveness, professional skills in programmatic management, and safety and regulatory compliance. Graduates should be able to pursue graduate study, participate in applied research, or transition directly into careers.

Curriculum for a Bachelor’s Degree in Occupational Health

The purpose of a bachelor’s degree in this subject is to introduce students to different methods for improving occupational health and wellness through awareness and health programs. Students at this level can learn how simple substances used in manufacturing and production methods can harm workers and the environment. 

Bachelor’s level work will consist of basic sciences, research methods, and environmental health and public health courses. Electives may include zoonotic diseases, waste management, industrial health, and many other topics.

Internships are important, although not often required as part of an undergraduate degree in occupational health. Potential employers value hands-on experience, which can ensure that what was learned in the classroom can be put into practice.

Courses may include the following:

Intro to Occupational Health and Safety

This course is an overview of occupational health as related to anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control of hazards in the workplace and the surrounding community. The course should also examine the legal aspects of occupational safety and health (OSH) in the United States, the origin and application of OSH-related consensus standards, hazard identification and control, and tools for successful management of OSH efforts. In addition, the principles of epidemiology, toxicology, exposure standards, and respiratory protection are discussed.

Health and Safety Management Systems

This course will teach students how to develop effective safety management policies, goals and objectives. Students will learn to apply risk management principles to reduce the impact of workplace hazards and how to examine management tools to implement effective safety management systems.


Toxicology explores the basic principles associated with the toxic effects of chemicals on the living organism while examining the regulatory aspects and applications of toxicology in the workplace. Among the topics covered are the potential adverse effects of drugs, pesticides, food additives and industrial chemicals.

Master’s in Occupational Health Programs

Master of Public Health is a great way to get a degree in occupational health. Most degree programs in this field require that students complete one to two years of education, with some requiring 50-60 credit hours for graduation. This program is usually offered in traditional and online formats. Students may choose an online MPH with a concentration in occupational health if they wish to continue working while enrolled.

Students who choose to move forward to master’s level programs may find the degree program focuses on management, leadership and research. Master’s in occupational health programs will prepare a student for a leadership position with both private companies and governmental agencies. Careers for master’s level earners can be found in positions that are responsible for oversight and supervision, making this degree program an excellent choice for those who wish to pursue high-level positions after graduation.

Curriculum for a Master’s Degree in Occupational Health

A master’s degree in occupational health builds on undergraduate degree programs. Coursework will include public health courses that will ensure students have an understanding of how environmental and occupational health influences all other aspects of public health. Some courses are specific to different aspects of work or manufacturing settings. 

Research, community education and policy analysis are some of the skills learned through this type of program. These skills will be assessed through a practicum or internship, along with a capstone or thesis. Each of these will provide the hands-on experience and research needed to work in occupational health.

Courses may include the following:

Environmental Risk Assessment

This course introduces the fundamentals of risk, the relationship between risk assessment and public policy, and the perception of risk. It provides students with an understanding of the value of risk assessment and risk management. Students learn how to identify potential hazards, quantify associated risks using probabilistic methods, and incorporate both probabilistic and deterministic results from environmental risk assessment (ERA) into the decision-making process after taking into consideration risk-to-risk trade-offs and societal and economic consequences.

Exposure Science

Exposure science plays a critical role in risk assessment, epidemiology and health interventions. Students learn a variety of techniques to measure or estimate human exposure to hazardous substances in occupational and community environments, such as pathway analysis and exposure biomarkers. By the end of the course, students will have developed the skills to design exposure studies applicable to epidemiologic investigations and health risk assessment.

Fundamentals of Industrial Hygiene

This course provides an introduction to industrial hygiene and allows students to understand the techniques of identifying and measuring occupational hazards in various industries and settings. The course will focus on the concepts, terminology and methodology of the field. Students will develop skills for evaluating exposures and identifying resource materials. Depending on the program, an emphasis will be placed on air sampling, ergonomics, industrial noise monitoring techniques and controls for industrial hazards, as well as basic calculations.

Doctorate in Occupational Health Programs

A doctoral degree in occupational health is for the individual who has a master’s degree and aspires to be in a higher leadership position or academia. This program is also suited to those interested in pursuing research-oriented careers or developing and implementing programs to increase safety in the workplace. Those already working in the field find online programs in occupational health to be a more convenient option for higher education that complements their busy lifestyles.

Curriculum for a Doctorate Degree in Occupational Health

Students enrolled in these doctorate programs will develop skills to create policies and regulations, assess case studies, and provide insight into safety practices, hazard recognition and illness prevention at regional, national and international levels. The coursework will focus on epidemiological methods, statistical reasoning, and data analysis. In addition, expect courses in ethics, law, research methods, public health policy and public health regulations. Through individual research, students can develop a more refined expertise in this field, making them an invaluable asset to companies and organizations that specialize in manufacturing, construction and more. 

Coursework can change depending on program and specialty, but some of the most common courses at this level include:

Occupational Exposure Assessment

This course helps students identify all potential risks in a working environment. Students may learn about the different methods for acquiring hazards, such as through the nose, mouth, skin, etc. Students can learn how to properly analyze potentially hazardous surroundings as well as steps to take if an assessment returns positive results.

Problems and Solutions with Industrial Hygiene

Students taking this class may investigate some of the common issues that arise in industrial hygiene careers. During classroom activities, students can take the lead in determining potential hazards, prevention strategies, and methods for responding to exposure. Case studies may be a large portion of this class, including some individual and group activities that require students to determine proper methods for safety depending on the study.

Advanced Evaluation of Occupational Hazards

This course outlines in detail some of Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) general standards and how they relate to occupational hazards. Students may scrutinize flammable liquids, gasses or the use of petroleum in the manufacturing setting. Proper protocol and prevention measures can be discussed, as well as individual critical thinking projects.

Occupational Health Careers, Salary and Employment 

There is strong demand for workers with a degree in occupational health. Public concern about the environment and occupational health is growing, making this field a desirable career path. Additionally, a career in occupational health will provide many opportunities to create policies and regulations that will keep the whole population safe and healthy.

Careers in this field can be found at companies that are responsible for following proper protocol during the production process as well as in private organizations that work to ensure that various businesses abide by safety policies. Consulting is another area graduates can pursue. Businesses often call on consultants to evaluate the safety of their organization and provide insight into possible improvements. Here are some of the more common careers in occupational health, along with salary information.

Who Should Work in Occupational Health?

Occupational health careers are best suited for those who are investigative, realistic and enjoy following procedure and routine. You’ll need to be able  to conduct and analyze research, understand policy, development and analysis. Attention to detail, dependability, and analytical thinking are needed.

Types of Occupational Health Employers

  • Commercial and retail organizations
  • Consulting
  • Health care
  • Industry, heavy and light
  • Insurance carriers
  • Petrochemical
  • Regulatory and other governmental organizations