Career Development: Mapping Safety Professional Career Progression


Key Takeaways

•This research found three major factors increasing the demand for safety professionals: 1) industry growth out pacing national averages, 2) undergraduate programs unable to keep up with the demand for novice safety professionals, and 3) the average safety professional will reach the age of retirement almost a decade sooner than the average American worker.

•The concept of Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSA) is more nebulous in nature and thus lacks needed definition for quantifying the experience of the safety professional.

•This study found that safety professionals do not begin with applied safety skills and transition to managerial skills as their careers progress. Instead, they develop a set of base skills and hone those skills over the course of their careers.


            The safety profession can trace its origins back several hundreds, if not thousands of years.  In the United States, the modern safety profession began taking shape in the 1960s (Goetsch, 2019).  During this time, legislation for mining was regaining momentum, as well as, the establishment of laws for workers in other industries.  Perhaps the most influential and widest sweeping was the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Pub. L. 91-596, 84 Stat. 1590, codified as amended at 29 U.S.C. §651-678.  Since then, the field of safety has begun to take on a more formalized role.

Today, like many occupations, the safety profession struggles with changing markets, emerging trends, advances in technology, and a plethora of other dynamics.  Also, like many other lines of work the safety profession relies on prereferral fields to further organizational goals; one specific example being the reliance on the Human Resource (HR) department for staffing vacancies.  Lastly, the safety profession does not hold a monopoly when facing the challenges associated with recruiting, developing, and retaining talent.

This paper has elected to focus on the latter issue for three reasons.  First, where all industries have a projected growth of seven percent, safety specialists are expected to experience growth of eight percent (BLS, 2018).  In addition, the same BLS report projects that safety technicians to enjoy a growth rate of ten percent.  Although slight, some can see the demand for safety professionals continues to increase at a rate greater than other professions.

The second factor can be seen in a study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  This study indicated that Occupational Safety and Health degree programs are not producing safety and health specialists, technicians, and engineers at the rate of industry growth (McAdams, Kerwin, Olivo, & Goksel, 2011).  Thus, the safety profession will likely continue to draw upon the special talents of those from peripheral trades and professions looking for career advancement, seeking a career change, or those diving into a second or third career.  For instance, engineers, Quality Control/ Quality Assurance (QC/QA) specialists, and Human Resource (HR) professionals have shared many close ties with the health and safety profession.

The third factor centers on the possible exodus of seasoned safety professionals preparing for a transition into retirement.  To illustrate, the BLS (2017) found the median age of the U.S. labor force to be 42 years of age.  Alternatively, the SH&E Industry: 2015 Salary Survey (Readex Research, 2015) found the median age of the safety professional to be 50 years of age.  Thus, with almost a decade of seniority over the average American worker, safety professionals will likely be more enticed by retirement options when measured against other industries.

Significance of the Problem

It is possible that with 1) industries increased demand, 2) the profession’s struggle to produce qualified candidates, and 3) the elevated potential for retirement, the safety profession may experience a deficit of qualified safety professionals in the years to come.  From a practical standpoint, three groupings will face the challenge of filling this void.  First, the human resource profession.  Second, emerging safety professionals; that is, those coming from other trades and professions in hopes of filling these vacancies.  Third, existing safety professionals with ambitions of furthering their careers.  All three of these groupings would greatly benefit from having a baseline set of competencies for measuring the needs of the vacant position against the competencies of the applicant.

To a degree, human resource professionals have developed a framework for doing this.  Perhaps more accurately, it can be said that human resource professionals have adopted the concept of competencies (Noe, Hollenbeck, Gerhart, & Wright, 2011; Bonder, Bouchard, & Bellemare, 2011). However, human resource professionals have been criticized for poorly defining, and not consistently applying competency requirements (Kuhn, 2015; Ngah, 2016).  Therefore, the need to identify the core competencies of safety and health professionals at entry-level, mid-level, senior-level career stages will be of great value.  Specifically, to the three groupings named above.

Minnick (2012) explored the concept of task ambiguity. It was stated that task ambiguity “results from lack of information concerning the proper definition of the job, its goals and the permissible means for implementing them” (Kakn et al., as cited by Minnick, 2012, p. 29). Although not directly related to defining competency requirements, the relevance here stems from the lack of definition or ambiguous nature that seems to be a reoccurring pitfall when defining a job description (Minnick, 2012).  Moreover, it stands to reason that if a Human Resource department cannot define the job, they cannot begin to adequately define what competencies are required to perform that job.  Complicating matters further, research has found that Human Resource professionals tend to inconsistently apply Human Resource practices (Kuhn, 2015).

In addition, research has also indicated that Human Resource professionals carry some stigma towards empirical research, favoring personal experience (Highhouse, 2008).  To illustrate, a meta-analysis was conducted measuring perceived effectiveness compared to actual effectiveness of sales performance using four common Human Resource practices (Vinchur, Schippmann, Switzer, & Roth, 1998).  Specifically, the study assessed: 1) unstructured interviews, 2) specific aptitude tests, 3) personality tests, and 4) GMA tests.  The biggest disparity was found in the category of unstructured interviews.  Where this category was perceived to be the most effective predictor of sales performance; its actual effectiveness scored as the lowest of the four predictors.  Thus, finding validity of competency systems within Human Resource best practices may be a tenuous endeavor.


Given these challenges, this research has attempted to add some clarity by defining competencies.  As a starting point, the preponderance of Human Resource literature concludes that competencies are a collective term and encompasses general subgroupings.  Many have come to use the term KSA, standing for Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities or KSAO Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, and Other characteristics.  Research found definitions ranging from: Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (Kuhn, 2015), to Knowledge, Skills and personal Attributes (Bonder, et al., 2011), to Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, and Other Characteristics (Noe, et al., 2011; Stetz, Button, & Porr, 2009).  Although there is some semblance of cohesion when it comes to defining the acronym, the definitions for each of these aspects varied, assuming a definition or elaboration was offered at all.

Upon further investigation, it was found that the KSA concept could not be claimed as an accomplishment of Human Resource endeavors.  Instead, some believe the genesis of the KSA competency model to be a product of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Laird, 1985).  Originally published as the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Laird, Holton, & Naquin, 2003), three broad domains of cognitive, affective, and psychomotor were formed.  Later, this work would transform into specific levels of behavior when published in the two volumes of “the Bloom Taxonomy” (Laird, Holton, & Naquin, 2003, p. 122).  Here, a series of successive levels was introduced.  In order for a subject to advance to a higher level, mastery of earlier levels was essential.

Since then, many variations have evolved. In turn, this has led to an expansive family tree of similar, yet different, terms and applications.  For instance, training and development specialists use the concept of Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes (KSA) for devising learning objectives (Lawson, 2009). This theme can be seen in many other instances including: Instructional System published by Fearon Publishers (1968); and A System Approach to Training produced by the U.S. Department of Defense (1988).  Then, the term Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA) entered the scene in the document: A System Approach to Training produced by the U.S. Department of Energy (1994).  This research concluded that each variation is likely an evolved adaptation designed to meet the needs of a given industry (e.g. government, military, etc.) and application (e.g. training, organizational staffing).  Based on this, the following definitions were devised for the purposes of this research.


Knowledge can be broken into two groupings.  The first is known as explicit knowledge (Noe, 2010). This type of knowledge could also be labeled as general knowledge as it includes fundamental elements that can be cross applied to virtually anywhere.  Some examples in this grouping would include reading, writing, and mathematics to name a few.

The second grouping is tacit knowledge (Noe, 2010).  This type of knowledge encompasses personal experience, and other less easily defined elements (Noe, 2010).  Persons rich in this type of knowledge would be well suited for troubleshooting and anticipating problems and systems or processes they are familiar with.


To a degree, skills can be seen as a cross between knowledge and abilities (DeSimone & Werner, 2012).  That is, persons with a skill set will carry A) applied knowledge about a task or group of tasks and B) the ability to perform those task(s).  For instance, a safety professional may be knowledgeable in trigonometry.  Additionally, this safety professional may also have the ability to collect information and perform the task of calculating sling stress in lifting and rigging applications.


For this research, the competency of abilities, that is ones’ physical capacity to perform a task shall be considered (DeSimone, & Werner, 2012).  This may be broken into two aspects.  The first shall consider capabilities; whereas, the second will address restrictions.  Some examples of capabilities may include: 1) Stand for extended periods of time; 2) reach overhead; and 3) lift and carry a specified volume of weight.  Some examples of restrictions may include: 1) Colorblindness; 2) specified allergen vulnerabilities such as penicillin, iodine, etc.; 3) Special populations such as elderly, pregnant, etc.  It should be noted, the reason for the classification of restrictions is motivated by protecting workers and not as a discriminatory practice.  For instance, a worker with an allergy to penicillin may not have the ability to work in a penicillin manufacturing facility depending on the scope of the job.  Similarly, a woman who is pregnant may have restrictions preventing her from working in some areas of a nuclear power facility.

Career Stages of the Safety Professional

With working definitions of Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities established this research moved into the realm of defining career stages.  The concept of career stages can find its roots in the sub-field of psychology that focuses on adult development (Levinson, 1986).  Here, Levinson introduces the concept of life course.  Levinson explains that the word life includes “all aspects of living: inner wishes and fantasies; love relationships; participation in family, work, and other social systems; bodily changes; good times and bad – everything that has significance in a life” (Levinson, 1986, p. 4).  Levinson also explains that “The word course indicates sequence, temporal flow…” (Levinson, 1986, p. 3).  Thus, life course includes work sequence.

Evolving from concept of life stages, career stages began to emerge (Demerouti, Peeters, & van der Heijden, 2012).  The concepts associated with career stages center around the work of Donald Edwin Super (Smart, & Peterson, 1997; Collin, & Patton, 2009; Demerouti et al., 2012).  This research found that career development can be broken into four stages (Smart, et al., 1997; Noe, 2010).

Chronologically, those entering the workforce begin in the exploration-level (Smart, et al., 1997; Noe, 2010).  These workers help and follow experienced workers in the tasks associated with the job.  These workers may spend the next several years determining what career path they would like to embark on.  Once an individual adopts the career path of the safety professional, he or she will begin to advance through the career stages of entry-level, mid-level, and senior-level safety professionals.  Each of these three career stages are expounded on in the following sections.

Entry-Level Safety Professionals

Once the worker has identified and launches into viable career path, he or she enters the establishment stage (Smart, et al., 1997; Noe, 2010).  According to Noe (2010), a worker may spend between two and ten years in this phase before advancing.  This can be because it takes time to learn the nuances and finer points of one’s career path, or because finding a good fit within a career may take some time.  Safety professionals at this stage were classified as entry-level or novices for the purposes of this research.

Mid-Level Safety Professionals

Next, workers advance into the maintenance stage (Smart, et al., 1997; Noe, 2010).  These individuals have mastered the basic skills needed to perform their trade or profession.  In contrast, these workers continue to hone their competencies as a means of staying current with changing practices and technologies.  Applied to the safety professional, this may be manifested in the form of obtaining or maintaining credentials.  For the purposes of this research, safety professionals at this stage were labeled as mid-level safety professionals.

Senior-Level Safety Professionals

Lastly, workers may advance to the disengagement stage (Smart, et al., 1997; Noe, 2010).  These workers may be encouraged to take on a protégé to train as their replacement.  Although, this stage is traditionally viewed as preparing for retirement, these individuals may simply shift into the role of mentoring or coaching.  For the purposes of this research, however, this category shall include mentors and coaches, as well as high-level safety executives, Subject Matter Experts (SME), and other peak safety positions.  This research shall refer to these safety professionals as Senior-level safety professionals.

The Survey

This study used a survey to collect safety professionals’ (SP) perception about the content/areas they believe SPs should have at each of the three career levels.  In addition, the study sample included safety professionals at all three levels of career progression.  Participants must be full-time safety professionals; meaning, that safety and health activities make up the majority of their day to day activities.  The geographical location of this study was focused in the northeastern United States.  Both male and female safety professionals were included in the study.  Participants were required to indicate that they were at least eighteen (18) years of age and had at least one year of experience as a full-time safety professional prior to beginning the survey.

Initially, 600 surveys were distributed by email.  Social media campaigning was also used.  The survey included a participant safeguard by way of an anonymous hyperlink.  That is, a hyperlink that does not collect personal data such as IP address.  After two weeks, a follow up email was redistributed to thank participants that had completed the survey and to remind those that had not to complete the survey.  Once aware of the survey campaign, the leadership of individual chapters of the American Society of Safety Professionals (at that time known as the ASSE) contacted the research leader to distribute information among their local chapters.  Thanks are particularly owed to the Western Pennsylvania, Central New York, and Maine Chapters for their assistance.


General Background

The survey was conducted using Qualtrics software.  Afterwards, a power analysis was conducted using the G-Power software version 3.1.7 to verify an adequate number of respondents is collected.  From there, the data from the study was analyzed using the IBM SPSS Version 23 software package.

The survey was made available on-line for 58 days; during that time, 210 respondents began the survey and 164 respondents completed the survey.  Of the remaining respondents, not all shared some details of their demographic data; for instance, gender.


Within the survey, several benchmarks were set.  For instance, gender, age, level of education, number of safety credentials, years of experience as a safety professional, and the like were compared against other surveys with larger sample populations.  Overall this survey and its adopted benchmarks were found to be very similar.  For instance, 45% of this survey’s respondents indicated they had completed a Bachelor’s degree; whereas, a benchmarked survey (Readex, 2015) reported that 44% of their respondents had completed the same level of education.  Thus, confidence was high that inferences drawn from this sample population could be applied to the general population of safety professionals.


The survey asked all participants to rank 15 applied skills they use most at their career level.  The researcher hypothesized that entry-level safety professionals would be incline to select skills that were more hands-on and concrete in nature.  For instance, calibrating equipment, conducting inspections, and training workers.  In contrast, the researcher hypothesized that senior-level safety professionals would gravitate to skills that were more knowledge based relying on abstract concepts.  Some examples here include, devising policy, conducting needs assessments, and developing content for training.  In short, the researcher anticipated a transition from hands-on skills to knowledge-based skills over the course of the safety professional’s career.  This, however, turned out not to be the case.

Interestingly, both entry-level and mid-level safety professionals selected identical top three choices: 1) Risk assessment / Hazard Identification, 2) Accident Investigation / Incident Analysis, and 3) Regulatory compliance.  The top three selections for senior-level safety professionals were: 1) Safety and Health Management (e.g. policy development & trending), 2) Risk assessment / Hazard Identification, 3) Accident Investigation / Incident Analysis.


            Based on these outcomes, the researcher concluded that safety professionals do not typically develop a set of base skills and transition to more managerial skills as their careers progress.  Instead, safety professionals develop a set of base skills and hone those skills from apprentice (entry-level) to journeyperson (mid-career) to master (senior-level) proficiencies.  Although a simple conclusion, the implications here can be considered far reaching and profound.

Before exploring these implications, recall the three reasons presented at the beginning of this paper that prompted the author’s desire to map the KSAs of safety professionals at each career stage.  To briefly recap, the safety profession is growing (BLS, 2018), colleges and universities cannot keep up with current growth rates (McAdams, et. al., 2011), and existing safety professionals can be expected to reach retirement sooner than other trades and professions (Readex Research, 2015; BLS, 2017).

With these three dynamics each placing compounding demand on the need for safety professionals in the United States, three distinct groups can benefit from these findings.  First, human resource professionals attempting to staff safety professional vacancies.  Second, safety professionals at all career stages attempting to gain a competitive advantage for employment.  Third, colleges, universities, and other institutions offering degrees, training or credentialing in the field of safety.  In application, by know precisely what skill sets safety professionals place the highest value on each of these groups of stakeholders can refine their efforts for qualifying safety professionals.





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Jarred O’Dell, CSP is a part-time faculty member for Occupational Safety and Health in the College of Safety and Emergency Services at Columbia Southern University. He has finished his course work and is focusing on his dissertation for his Ph.D. Safety Sciences at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he also obtained his M.S. Safety Sciences. His research interests lie within the safety and health field focusing his efforts as a safety statistician.

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