Environmental Health Careers: What They Are and How to Start

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover what it takes to become an environmental health professional, what they do, and the salary expectations to see if it’s right for you.

[Featured Image] Two health care workers wear protective glasses and lab coats and stand in front of a medical instrument.

Environmental health involves studying the environment, how it affects humans, and taking steps to help prevent disease and other health issues. This could include identifying asthma triggers, solving a water pollution crisis, and working to stop a worldwide health crisis. 

The educational and experience requirements to become an environmental health professional depend on your career type. You might specialise in engineering, environmental science, toxicology, epidemiology, and environmental law. Whatever specialty you choose, many potential career options exist in this field.

According to Indeed, environmental health officers make an average base salary of about ₹4,94,163 per year [1]. If this sounds like a field you’d like to enter, understanding everything involved in the role is an essential starting point to determine whether it’s a good match.

What exactly is environmental health?

Environmental health is the science of how humans interact with the world. After all, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), healthier environments could prevent almost one-quarter of the global disease burden. The WHO lists “Clean air, a stable climate, adequate water, sanitation and hygiene, safe use of chemicals, protection from radiation, healthy and safe workplaces, sound agricultural practices, health-supportive cities, and built environments, and a preserved nature” as necessary factors in supporting robust human health [2].

Environmental health careers usually fit into one of five categories:

  • Environmental science or the general study of how the human body reacts to various aspects of the environment

  • Environmental engineering or the practice of improving or maintaining the environment to enhance or protect human health

  • Environmental law, which involves creating or opposing laws and regulations that impact human health or create environmental concerns

  • Toxicology or the study of how exposure to toxins affects the human body or a large population

  • Environmental epidemiology or the study of how the environment impacts the occurrence and spread of disease

The World Health Organisation breaks environmental health down into six specific themes.

• Outdoor air quality

• Ground and surface water quality

• Hazardous waste and toxic substances

• Homes and communities

• Infrastructure and surveillance

• Global environmental health 

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What does an environmental health professional do?

Much of the role of an environmental health professional falls into two categories: prevention or response, no matter the subspeciality. On the prevention side, you’ll focus on teaching about disease prevention or helping to create laws to help prevent health hazards in the community. On the response side, the role involves seeking ways to slow or stop a health hazard that has already occurred within a community or determining why safety and health are poor at a specific location. 

Environmental health specialists usually work to analyse a specific problem and devise a solution for it. You may do this by:  

  • Collecting data via research, surveys, and investigations

  • Analysing information from water, soil, food, air, or other parts of the environment

  • Taking all data collected and looking for patterns that might cause a threat

  • Devising a plan to solve a problem or prevent future threats

  • Educating government officials, business leaders, and the general public about specific environmental risks and threats to their health

  • Creating reports and presentations based on your research and experiments

Depending on the career choice you make, some other tasks you might complete as an environmental health professional include:   

  • Recommending environmental interventions to policymakers

  • Helping policymakers come up with laws and regulations to protect the public from environmental hazards

  • Developing educational materials for a community or organisation

  • Working within an organisation as an environmental health leader

  • Performing systems analysis to ensure everything is working correctly

  • Communicating with members of the community to help address and solve problems

  • Making recommendations on plans for new construction or process changes

How to become an environmental health professional

Becoming an environmental health professional might mean getting an environmental health degree or a related science field. It might also involve gaining hands-on experience through an internship or entry-level job or earning specific certifications. It depends on which direction you want to take your career and the requirements for the job you're applying for. However, there are some general steps to help get into the field. 

Get the proper education (preferred degrees)

While there's yet to be a set path to becoming an environmental health professional, many jobs require you to have at least a bachelor's degree in a related field. Some may even require a master's degree. 

Schools may offer a range of environmental science degrees.  Some typical degrees include:

  • Industrial Health and Safety

  • Environmental Science

  • Environment Science and Ecology

  • Environmental Health Engineering

  • Public Health

  • Occupational & Environmental Health

  • Environmental Engineering

  • Environmental Science and Engineering

  • Environmental Studies

Specialisations include the workplace, soil and water, fire sciences, environmental education, environmental policy, climate, and toxicology. You can further pursue your specialisation at a master’s or PhD programme level.

Work in the field

Once you have completed your education or earned a degree, getting real-world experience in environmental health is almost always necessary to advance your career. This can be done in a variety of ways. Start by looking for internships in a business, industrial, government, or non-profit environment.

Essential skills required for environmental health specialists

Degrees, work experience, and certifications can help get environmental health jobs, but additional workplace skills can help impress prospective employers. Naturally, being scientific-minded with an interest and expertise in natural sciences, technology, and engineering is necessary. As with many careers, excellent written and verbal skills are essential to present findings to others. 

Knowledge of enterprise resource planning software

Most environmental health jobs require good computer and technology skills. Experience with and knowledge of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is also beneficial. ERP helps integrate processes, improves communication, and allows data access and sharing with colleagues in one place.  

Knowledge and background in relevant subject areas

A natural sciences, public health, or occupational safety background is foundational for environmental health professionals. If you're a high school or college student already chosen this career path, take as many courses as possible and look for volunteer opportunities or internships. 

Depending on the route you plan to pursue, you should focus on natural sciences such as biology and chemistry or earth sciences like geology and oceanography. Or you might be more interested in oil and gas safety engineering or process safety and engineering. Another approach is to pursue the public health angle with coursework and hands-on experience in industrial health and hygiene or food safety.

Persuasive communication

Environmental health professionals often have to present findings to various stakeholders. They may also need to educate communities about risks or preventative measures. You may need to write technical reports for other scientists or create presentations for the general public. You may need to report findings to or lobby government officials. It would be best if you did all this in a way that persuades your audience to take action in response to the information. 

Deductive and inductive reasoning

Deductive reasoning starts with a premise or theory, proven true or false through observation and experimentation. Inductive reasoning involves taking specific information and making generalisations based on the data. Both are essential parts of working in the environmental health field. 

Service orientation (focus on helping people)

Anyone entering the environmental health field should want to help others, whether to improve the lives of others, a particular community, or the entire world. After all, the primary purpose of the job is to determine how to improve the lives of others.

Critical thinking 

You'll need to be a critical thinker to develop research questions and fresh approaches, analyse data, and find patterns. You'll need to take everything you learn or observe and find a way to solve or prevent a problem by thinking critically.  

Where do environmental health professionals work?

Environmental health professionals work in a variety of locations. Government agencies are a great place to start with an entry-level position in the field. If you choose this route, you may work behind the scenes to ensure public policies and laws are followed or to help determine what steps must be taken to protect the public from various issues.  

Protecting workers and the community is now critical to global business success; you can also find environmental health roles in just about any industry. On the factory floor, line workers need to be protected. In the pharmaceutical lab, researcher safety is essential. In hospitals, the patients aren’t the only ones whose health matters. The opportunities for environmental health professionals are vast.

 Career outlook in environmental health

The environmental health profession is a growing one. The COVID-19 pandemic was one factor that helped raise awareness of the importance of this role. Yet, more attention to worker well-being and environmental safety has been seen globally as organisations, investors, and the public pay greater attention to Environmental, Social, and Governance priorities (ESG).  

While many people who choose to study environmental health and desire a career in the field go on to become environmental health scientists or specialists, many other career options are available in this industry.  

Environmental Engineers 

Environmental engineers combine a background in engineering with concepts like biology, chemistry, and soil science to solve environmental problems. Problems they address include cleaning up drinking water, controlling pollution, or finding a better way to dispose of waste. The pay for an environmental engineer in India averages ₹3,22,031 per year [3].

Safety Supervisor 

Safety supervisors oversee employees to address health and safety issues. The job can involve researching personal protection equipment, educating workers on ergonomics, assessing safety risks, implementing safety rules, and more. As of February 2024, Safety Supervisors could expect an average base salary of  ₹2,69,872 per year [4].

Want to discover more about environmental health

If you're considering a career in environmental health or already work in the industry and want to broaden your knowledge, visit Coursera. You'll find related courses offered by some of the top universities in the world, such as Environmental Health: the Foundation of Global Public Health from the University of Michigan. 

Article sources

1. Indeed. “Environmental health officer salary in India, https://in.indeed.com/career/environmental-health-officer/salaries/.” Accessed February 29, 2024. 

2. WHO. “Environmental health, https://www.who.int/health-topics/environmental-health#tab=tab_1./” Accessed February 29, 2024.  

3. Indeed. “Environmental engineer salary in India, https://in.indeed.com/career/environmental-engineer/salaries?from=top_sb/.” Accessed February 29, 2024.  

4. Indeed. “Safety supervisor salary in India, https://in.indeed.com/career/safety-supervisor/salaries?from=top_sb.” Accessed February 29, 2024. 

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