Environment, health and safety graduate jobs: how to get one

Last updated: 21 Jun 2023, 15:37

What does a safety, health and environment adviser do in the engineering and technology industry? How can you secure your graduate job? Sinéad Egan, a safety, health and environment manager with over eight years’ experience at Costain, explains.

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At interview, I assess a candidate’s skills with regards to engaging and influencing people.

The overall function of a safety, health and environment (SHE) adviser is to ensure that legal and company requirements are complied with across an operational site. Your role is to essentially act as a conscience for the business, influencing and engaging teams that range from the individual subcontractors to the project’s senior management.

Therefore, most SHE adviser jobs are found with the principal contractors on a project (those who are responsible for the actual construction), but there are also some jobs available with consultant organisations (those who plan and design the project prior to construction) or the subcontractors (typically smaller organisations who are hired by the principal contractor to assist them).

How do you get a SHE graduate job?

The most common way is to apply to a graduate scheme offered by a company. Generally speaking, I would advise joining a company that has a large team of SHE advisers, as the best way to learn is through others’ experience.

Degree requirements vary at different employers, but in general companies will require either an undergraduate or postgraduate qualification in a subject related to health and safety management or the environment.

Can you get work experience or an internship in health and safety advice?

It may be hard to find formal work experience schemes or internships, but many employers will accept speculative applications from students wanting to try the work for a week or so. You can contact recruiters or approach managers directly, either through LinkedIn or your university alumni network. Professional bodies such as the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) or the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) may also be able to point you in the right direction.

If you aren’t able to gain role-specific work experience, it will show commitment towards working in the field if you either manage to: a) get some work shadowing in, for example, your local planning office or a similar related department; or b) volunteer with an environmental charity.

What are you looking for in graduate applications and interviews?

When I am reviewing an application, I look for an appetite to learn and a genuine interest in health and safety and the environment. At interview, I would want to assess a candidate’s skills with regards to engaging and influencing people – for example, by asking them how they would go about persuading people around to their point of view, to explain where they have used their listening skills to yield a positive result or to tell me about a time when they had to do something new that was outside of their comfort zone. I would also be interested in finding out what their expectations of the role might be, so I might ask them to explain what they think a typical day would involve.

What does a safety, health and environment adviser do day to day?

Each company has its own safety management system, which sets out the legal requirements and company-specific best practices that SHE advisers work towards. One of the aspects I enjoy most about working in engineering is that you can never predict your day.

The main focus is the execution of work on the ground. Your day will usually start with a site visit or tour, monitoring and checking compliance and perhaps mentoring and coaching the workforce on the ground. This site visit might highlight issues or complications and the rest of your day may be spent on these. However, in parallel to that, there may be site safety initiatives to roll out, data to analyse and trends to record.

You may be asked for advice on risk assessments or you may liaise with the regulators to gain permits/consents. If, for example, the project involves deep excavations you may liaise with the archaeologists via the local authority. Often SHE advisers highlight health issues, conditions or wider concerns to the rest of the business and are involved in finding a solution or risk mitigation measure; they also assist the site teams in implementing/rolling out new policies or procedures.

On a daily basis, you engage most frequently with the frontline supervising/management teams on the project – both those at the principal contractor and the subcontractor. You may also interact frequently with the operational teams (such as engineering, planning and commercial teams). If you work on a large project, you are likely to work as part of a SHE team.

I am a SHE project manager now on a large highways project and I head up a team which includes an environment adviser specialist, an occupational health specialist, a SHE advisor and a SHE administrator. The composition of your team is likely to determine precisely how much time you spend on health, safety or environmental factors respectively. Now, my time is fairly evenly split between the three, but when I was a graduate I spent more time on health and safety, as there was an environment specialist on the team.

A standard working day is likely to be 8.00 am to 5.30 pm, but a construction site is operational 24 hours a day, so you may need to be flexible: I often start my working day at 7.00 am. If working for a principal contractor, you are likely to work from site offices, close to the management teams, but be out on site regularly.

What do you do as a graduate?

A graduate would start out by gaining an appreciation and understanding of the project and different teams and how they interact. They would shadow more experienced advisers and specialists on site and have the opportunity to ask as many questions as necessary and this should be encouraged as it is vital for learning. They may be given small projects to work on. For example, the graduates may review best practice guidelines around the use of a piece of equipment and then, when they feel comfortable, they can champion best practice in regards to it or review its use on site.

We would not expect a graduate starting out to have a detailed knowledge of health, safety and environmental factors. You should be given lots of general and specific training and coaching: Costain’s graduate programme afforded me many training opportunities to develop both personally and professionally.

What skills do you need to be successful?

The main skill that you learn is to influence people and gain their support: this in turn requires skills such as listening, perceptiveness and understanding the different points of view of the individuals you are working with. Your priority might be SHE-related, but they may have ten other priorities on their mind. You need to have excellent communication skills and to adapt your communication style as necessary. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned – everyone is different!

To be successful, a graduate working in this environment needs to be adaptable and quick to react to change: the environment on site is constantly changing. You should maintain high standards, but sometimes be pragmatic about how to achieve them.

What career progression opportunities are there within health, safety and the environment?

I started out as a graduate adviser in 2009, was promoted to junior SHE advisor in August 2012 and in 2013 became a senior SHE adviser. I was appointed project SHE manager, which involves managing a team of SHE professionals, in 2014.

However, as your career progresses, it is possible to specialise either in a type of project or in a particular aspect of health, safety or the environment. When I joined Costain’s graduate programme, my first project was constructing a school but I have since specialised in highways. I have also just completed an MSc in occupational hygiene, with my employer’s support, and hope to move into more of an occupational health role in the near future.

You are likely to be encouraged to gain chartership with the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (CMIOSH), particularly as many clients require that a certain number of chartered professionals work on their projects. It is also advantageous to become a member of, or gain accreditation/qualifications with, a related body such as the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA).

Why should graduates consider a health, safety and environment career?

I love that the environment is continually changing and that there is such a positive team spirit. I won’t deny that I found it difficult at times when I joined as a graduate, as there was so much to learn. However, the job has never been boring or repetitive, as there is always room for improvement when it comes to the safety and health of others and leaving a positive legacy within the environments in which we work. I have the opportunity to effect positive change and I enjoy the varied aspects of my role.

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