How does occupational health differ from environmental health?

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Public Health

Environmental health researcher checks alkaline levels of water sample

The field of public health is a lot deeper than many students realize, as it contains a number of different career paths that may appeal to a wide variety of personal interests. Occupational health and environmental health are two such concentrations, and while these subfields do overlap a good deal, they are quite different in terms of their specializations. To get an idea for how these concentrations differ, let’s explore what makes each subfield unique.

What is occupational health?

Occupational health involves the identification and control of workplace risks that have the potential to negatively impact the well-being of professionals in a variety of industries. These risks can be physical, chemical, or psychological in nature, and often change over time, as industrial business practices are constantly evolving. While much of the discussion surrounding occupational health focuses on industries with a high degree of personal risk, such as manufacturing and construction, public health experts are also concerned with general working conditions in other less intrinsically dangerous workplaces.

The primary goal of this subfield is to promote health and safety practices that protect modern workers from workplace hazards, which requires a good deal of research and regulatory action. For example, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) regularly updates its guidelines for the handling of volatile chemical agents and solvents when new information is available. The agency also sets standards for industries that process heavy metals, work at high elevations, employ dangerous machinery, and a whole lot more. Additionally, OSHA is responsible for enforcing its health and safety regulations, issuing compliance notices and fines when its standards are not met — the penalty can be as high as $13,260 per violation.

Some common career paths in this concentration include:

  • Occupational Health and Safety Specialists: This position is responsible for inspecting a wide variety of work environments to ensure employers are adhering to regulations on safety, health, and the environment.
  • Occupational Health and Safety Technicians: These professionals work in close partnership with health and safety specialists to conduct thorough hazard testing and measure the potential impact of different operational practices.

What is environmental health?

In contrast to occupational health, which is particularly focused on workplace hazards, environmental health seeks to prevent human injuries and illnesses on a much broader scale. Professionals in this field work to identify and evaluate hazardous agents that may impact the public well-being, such as industrial pollution and biological pathogens. Experts carefully assess the quality of air, soil, water, and food to pinpoint present and future risks that may lead to large-scale health problems if left unchecked. Once identified, public health officials take decisive action through public awareness campaigns and policy recommendations, focusing on the interrelationships between people and their environment.

This field of study is often community-focused, as the policies and programs it creates aim to improve the living conditions of every citizen by targeting the region-specific health hazards they face. Organizations like the National Environmental Health Association push for sustainable solutions to some of the most complex exposure risks, which often require protective intervention to mitigate. Government agencies play a critical role in this process, as many issues are too large to solve through nonprofit efforts alone. Environmental health initiatives are grounded in rigorous research and evidence-based communication models, highlighting the need for public health professionals who have a passion for science.

Some popular career paths in this subfield include:

  • Environmental Specialists: These experts apply their knowledge of the natural sciences to develop comprehensive strategies for improving the environment and human health, often in partnership with lawmakers and industry leaders.
  • Epidemiologists: Professionals in this public health field study how and where disease outbreaks start and spread, using the data they gather to develop and improve existing medical treatments and prevention strategies.

Where the fields overlap

Occupational and environmental health experts are uniformly committed to protecting human societies from natural and anthropogenic hazards. Both subfields are focused on improving the lives of citizens around the world through scientific research, public outreach, and regulatory action, even if it means standing up to entrenched institutions and economic systems. Some of the pressing health hazards we face today can be traced to the unsustainable practices of the past — from the reckless extraction of natural resources to the climate impact of unchecked industrial manufacturing and urbanization — and others are an inherent part of the human condition, such as disease and natural disasters. Public health experts from every subfield work to mitigate these hazards through careful observation, study, and communication, though the support of government policies and regulations certainly help.

What an online MPH program can do for you

At Regis College, we connect passionate students with public health concentrations that suit their particular career goals through our online Master of Public Health program. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in occupational or environmental health, our dynamic curriculum can provide the knowledge and skills you need to make a real difference at the local, state, and national levels. The program features eight important foundational courses that can teach you the ins and outs of the public health sector, including Biostatistics, Contemporary Issues in Environmental Health, and Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Whether you’re looking for a hands-on career in public health research or a communication-focused role developing new policies and programs, Regis College can help you succeed. Students can choose from two relevant concentrations, each with its own unique specializations and learning objectives:

  • Health Policy and Management: Study health policy and management from a variety of perspectives to discover how you can create and implement evidence-based initiatives that will meet current and emerging needs.
  • Epidemiology: Gain firsthand experience developing comprehensive health studies for specific infectious and chronic diseases, along with the data analysis skills you need to discover solutions to societal and environmental health issues.

Are you interested in learning more about the online MPH degree program at Regis College? Contact us today for more information.



Recommended Readings:

How an MPH can prepare you for creating health policy

What is the relationship between public health and urban planning?

How to choose a career in public health after completing your MPH degree



Regis College – Online Master of Public Health

Occupational Health by The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Environmental and Occupational Public Health by The Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society

Definitions of Environmental Health by The National Environmental Health Association

Occupational Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Environmental Scientists and Specialists by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics