Along with environmental concerns come health and safety

By Dr. Daniel Tang Kuok Ho

I have shared in a previous article in this column that, compared to even just a decade ago, there is now great demand for environmental professionals, as well as better acceptance for, and awareness of, environmental engineering studies. Now, I am also seeing an increasing need for environmental professionals to gain new knowledge.

This was the main reason I decided to venture into safety as the focus of my research during my PhD candidacy. It took me a while to decide if I should delve into an entirely new area since it would have meant additional challenges of learning a different domain of knowledge.

As I progressed in my research, I discovered many overlapping aspects of environment and safety. Safety is an overarching domain which extends from personal and workplace levels to an entire asset and the environment, while occupational safety focuses on keeping individuals safe at workplaces via promoting safe actions and conditions. Environmental safety, meanwhile, is often addressed during emergency response and disaster management to minimise environmental damage and catastrophic consequences to the public.

I found knowledge of safety enhanced my environmental training, particularly when both converge in the need for a systematic management system to safeguard the environment, as well as occupational and process safety. In my research, it was made clear to me that safety and health are inseparable, with both ultimately merging when it comes to protecting a person’s wellbeing.

However, there are subtle differences in the focuses of the two. Safety emphasises minimising injuries, protecting assets and preventing environmental damage by reducing process and personal safety risks as far as reasonably practicable.

Health, however, is more far-ranging, extending into such aspects as physical, mental, social and spiritual wellbeing. Physical health concerns the prevention of occupational illnesses and poisoning as well as aggravation of existing health conditions due to work-related activities. Mental health and social health are frequently coalesced into the psychosocial domain, which deals with stress, performance, motivation and interpersonal relations.

Safety and health is in fact incorporated into many environmental courses nowadays to give students of environmental science or engineering exposure to knowledge and skills in managing occupational safety and health.

Like environmental engineering, safety and health has come into the limelight with the enactment and enforcement of safety and health laws in Malaysia. Parts of the laws have explicitly required the recruitment of safety officers and safety supervisors at workplaces. This is a direct contributing factor to the rising need for safety and health professionals across the nation.

Championed by the airline and the oil and gas sectors, awareness for safety and health has now permeated many other sectors, including universities, hotels and retail chains which are not commonly associated with high risks. This further spurs the demand for such professionals.

Many companies have established Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) departments to manage HSE aspects of their operations encompassing waste management, emission control, safety programmes, workplace inspection and safety audits, to name a few. Companies, whether large or small-medium scale, are progressively hiring environmental professionals as well as health and safety experts to administer such operations.

I have frequently advised my environmental engineering students to engage in continuous professional development, and safety and health is an area they are encouraged to look into. Equipped with engineering and environmental knowledge and skills, acquisition of additional safety and health training will be a definite advantage in their career progression.

I was extremely impressed when I heard from an industrial practitioner during a field trip we conducted recently that he has never regretted being in the field of HSE and was never in his professional journey been unable to get a job. Many practitioners have also stressed the importance of registering with related professional bodies as a catalyst for moving up the career ladder, hence the impetus for professional development.

In this competitive era, the need to be versatile has never been stronger. Universities have been quick to identify the trend and have introduced multi-disciplinary courses to cater for the need. Many courses in environment, safety and health also integrate aspects of health sciences such as environmental health, epidemiology and biostatistics to equip students with a wider set of skills, thus providing better career prospects.

Though environmental graduates are now better-positioned in the job market compared to the past, it is crucial for them to develop diverse skills and enhance their versatility to prepare for various challenges in the dynamic work environment, and health and safety should be at the top of their skills-to-be-acquired list.

Dr. Daniel Tang Kuok Ho is a senior lecturer in the Bachelor of Environmental Engineering (Hons.) and Bachelor of Science (Health, Safety and Environment) programmes at Curtin Malaysia. The Bachelor of Environmental Engineering (Hons.) is a 4-year engineering programme fully accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Board of Malaysia and Engineers Australia. The Bachelor of Science (Health, Safety and Environment) is a 3-year science programme accredited by the Safety Institute of Australia and Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, United Kingdom. Both courses are recognised by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).