Chris Matute makes a living saving lives by deactivating munitions.
“If you’ve ever seen the movie The Hurt Locker, that’s the job,” Matute says. After several tours in Iraq, he retired from military service. He began humanitarian work in Vietnam, where unexploded devices from war years are rampant and often kill and maim civilians like farmers and particularly children. Today he consults for a private munitions removal company and is currently stationed in Hawaii, searching and removing munitions from residential areas that were once — 70-plus years ago — military training grounds.
Matute is also a student in the Trinidad State Occupational Safety and Health Technology Program (OSHT), studying for his Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree to further his career. The OSHT online college classes are accessible to students worldwide and provide occupational safety and health education to both entry-level career seekers and workers already in the field. The AAS degree at Trinidad State is accredited by the Applied and Natural Science Accreditation Commission of ABET (https://www.abet.org/).
While Matute’s work may be an extreme example of a career in workplace safety, as he faces high-risk situations virtually every working day, the safety field as a whole is about as broad as it gets. Professionals in the field work for hospitals, energy companies, construction companies, manufacturers, insurance companies, Amazon, and more with salaries ranging from $45,000 for those starting out to $170,000 or beyond for highly skilled, highly qualified workers. Median pay in 2019 for the industry was $70,480 per year.
But despite the wide range of positions in the industry, professionals in workplace safety tend to have in common a commitment to saving lives and gratitude for a career that is one of the most rewarding. Reports and surveys suggest that job satisfaction in the industry tends to be very high.
“For safety professionals, their ultimate goal is to send employees home to their families the same way they came to work. Workplace safety and health is a wonderful career if you want to help people, if you want great career prospects and a job that is highly respected,” says Jocelyn King, program chair and instructor for the Occupational Safety and Health Technology program at Trinidad State Junior College.
Occupational safety and health technicians and professionals advise, develop strategies, and lead workplace safety and health management. They establish risk controls and management processes that promote sustainable and safe business practices. They work to reduce and eliminate fatalities, injuries, occupational illnesses, and property damage. The job can entail conducting tests, assessing occupational health hazards, providing safety training, and more.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the profession is approximately 122,000 safety professionals strong, with employment opportunities across all safety-related roles projected to increase. The increase in demand for safety technicians is driven in part by employer recognition that workplace safety provides a significant return on investment, protects a company’s reputation, and can offer a competitive advantage.
Approximately 85 percent of the students in the OSHT program at Trinidad State currently work in the field of safety and are seeking higher credentials to advance their careers. The program is a popular choice among working professionals due to its flexibility. Accreditation is another significant plus: the OSHT AAS degree is the only two-year safety program in the world that is ABET-accredited (it is a two-year program for full-time students; it can take 3-3.5 years for part-time students to complete).
Flexibility and career growth were certainly on Matute’s mind when he chose the program at Trinidad State. “I wanted to advance in my career; boosting my credentials will help me rise into management. Taking this program is a great career move; the knowledge you gain in the program is backed up by your experience. Trinidad has also been great about understanding that people have full-time jobs and lives, and they work with you to make sure you are getting what you need out of the program,” says Matute.
When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — the main government body overseeing workplace safety — was first established in 1971, many in the industry initially viewed its regulations as burdensome. However, since that time, OSHA standards have had a dramatic effect on safety in the workplace. Fatality and injury rates have dropped markedly (it is estimated that in 1970 around 14,000 workers were killed on the job. That number fell to approximately 4,340 in 2009, and during the same period, U.S. employment has almost doubled).
At the same time, employers have come to recognize that worker injuries are not good for business, impacting employee morale and driving up insurance rates. Indeed, safety breeds efficiency, boosts productivity, and increases profitability. There are many examples of companies that have profited by putting safety first, and having open conversations about safety not only leads to safer workplaces but also encourages the flow of important and creative ideas from the workforce to management, improving operations overall.
As a result, many companies are extremely supportive of their safety workers receiving additional education; Trinidad State has partnered with companies in the construction, oil and gas, mining, manufacturing, and other industries to further credential working safety technicians.
In many ways, a career in workplace safety and health makes sense for military and veterans; skillsets taught and valued in the military are also highly valuable in this career. Risk management is at the heart of military training. The rigor, organization, discipline, and eye for detail instilled during military training have, at their core, the objective of keeping soldiers and their teams safe. Similarly, occupational safety and health is all about risk management; for instance, identifying risks, collecting data, and analyzing safety incident reports.
Approximately 30 percent of those in the Trinidad State OSHT program are current or former military. Part of the “Yellow Ribbon” program (a provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill that allows veterans to attend a private school for little or no out-of-pocket money), Trinidad State waives any extra tuition costs not covered by the government for qualifying students. This is one of the benefits that attracted Matute and many others who serve or have served to the school’s programs.
In the field of Occupational Safety and Health, Trinidad State offers two options, an AAS degree and a certificate in OSHT. Both programs are available entirely online, and both are designed to deliver specific performance outcomes necessary for the success of the entry-level safety technician with an Associate of Applied Science degree in Occupational Safety and Health Technology. Though AAS degrees are typically considered terminal degrees that provide students with the necessary knowledge and skills for entry-level work, the well-trained graduates of the OSHT program have been hired for positions where a bachelor’s degree was expected. Graduates have also transferred their credits to four-year degree programs.
King has made it her mission to give back to the program that changed her life. Years ago, as a student and a single working mother, she found the professors at Trinidad State to be high quality in terms of the subject matter and also compassionate and supportive of students. She credits the school with giving her a foundation for a successful career, which has included spearheading the development of one of the earliest online/digital learning safety programs in the country.
“When people ask what program they should attend, this is the only one that I recommend. It is a well-respected program, by far the best, in my opinion. And the instructors are understanding and always willing to work with you; they are good people,” says Matute.
For more information go to trinidadstate.edu/osh.