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Secrets of the Safety Leaders

Oct. 10, 2023
The 2023 National Safety & Salary Survey uncovers what’s on top of the wish lists of hundreds of EHS leaders.

“I wish making the case for safety didn’t seem to always come down to ROI. Protecting people shouldn’t be so laser-focused on money.”

“My department doesn’t get the needed respect for what we do by our peers and upper management.”

“I would like to have a dedicated budget for safety initiatives. Currently, all safety expenditures come through the maintenance budget.”

“Pay me what I am worth for what I do.”

—comments posted by respondents to the 2023 National Safety and Salary Survey

What is a workplace safety leader? Sometimes it’s one person, working alone; sometimes it’s a small group of occupational health and safety managers; sometimes it’s a large team of EHS professionals overseeing the safety of a multinational corporation. When EHS Today conducted its 2023 National Safety and Salary Survey, we set out to learn exactly what a workplace safety leader does, and what follows is our special report on those findings.

Based on responses from 744 EHS professionals, we can tell you that most of the safety leaders in the United States have direct reports (55%), probably between one and nine, although 6% are responsible for 50 or more people. But what that also means is that 45% are on their own, especially those working for small to mid-sized organizations, where the safety leader often wears a lot of different hats. And one of their biggest challenges, make no mistake, is their workload keeps increasing while the size of their support staff does not.

Through the magic of spreadsheets and cross-comparisons, we crunched the numbers from the survey responses to develop a composite portrait of what a “typical safety leader” looks like (admittedly, there’s really no such person). Based on the most frequent responses to our various demographic questions, the typical safety leader has the job title of EHS manager, is a white male in his 50s, lives in the Midwest, has more than 20 years of experience, works for a manufacturing company, manages a staff of fewer than 10 people, earns $99,212, and received a raise of roughly 4% in the past year 

By way of comparison to last year’s demographics, the basic description of a safety leader hasn’t really changed since 2022, although the average salary did dip slightly from $99,609. So, for all intents and purposes, while the responsibilities shouldered by safety professionals increased, the average salary didn’t change appreciably over the past year. “Safety first” looks really nice on a break room poster, but supporting the EHS department with appropriate budgets and staffing isn’t always on the corporate agenda.

What's in a Title?

To get a better handle on what an EHS professional is, take a look at the accompanying chart, “Average Salary by Job Responsibility.” From our survey, one-third of respondents have the title of EHS manager, EHS supervisor or an equivalent title, and they earn, on average, $99,558. EHS professionals, who make up the second biggest bloc among our respondents at 25% of the total, earn $83,722. EHS directors or VPs account for 12%, the third-largest group, and earn $132,551.

This would be the appropriate time to issue our disclaimer that when it comes to your own salary situation, your mileage may vary (in fact, it almost certainly will), so just because you have a EHS director title, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to have any luck pressing for a hefty raise if you’re nowhere near making $132,000. Numerous factors come into play when it comes to the salary ranges of safety practitioners.

Safety professionals work in a lot of different industries and professions. Based on our survey results, the largest percentage work in manufacturing, with the largest concentration being in light manufacturing industries (such as apparel or consumer electronics) or heavy manufacturing industries (such as automotive or aerospace), which combined add up to 29% of all respondents. The light manufacturing respondents earn an average of $87,228 while heavy manufacturing averages $103,973.

Construction is also well represented in our survey, accounting for 14% of respondents, at an average salary of $102,580. The highest paying industry, according to the survey, and consistent with what we’ve seen in previous surveys, is research & technology, with an average salary of $137,191 (but only accounting for 2% of the survey respondents). Insurance ($114,860), chemicals ($114,573) and consulting ($114,108) are also among the highest-paying industry sectors.

When asked about their areas of personal responsibility, safety leaders reported back with a very long list of responses. The most common answers were safety (91%), occupational health (67%), risk management (64%), ergonomics (61%) and emergency management (60%). The wide variety of responses speak to the range of things that “safety” means to an organization, an organization’s priorities, the maturity and size of the organization, and the industry it serves.

Diversity is Still More of an Idea Than a Reality

Safety leaders tend to be seasoned professionals. In our survey, we found that 68% have more than 10 years of experience, and more than one-third (37%) of all respondents have at least 20 years of experience. As you would expect, the more experience you have, the higher your salary, as the salaries rise the longer you’ve been on the job. Those with less than five years of experience earn $76,109, while those with more than 20 years earn $116,599.

When we look at the age of the respondents, the results are similar but not quite identical to the years of experience. Those aged 65 or older are making less, not more, than some younger age groups. In all likelihood, many of those over 65 are semi-retired or are in consulting roles, which would account for why their salaries are somewhat lower than safety professionals in the 45-64 age range.

All told, more than three-quarters of the respondents (76%) are over the age of 45. And when we asked respondents to cite the biggest challenges they face in their jobs, many of them said that recruiting and training young people is a constant challenge, while others mentioned the difficulty in replacing the experience of older workers when they retire.

Safety professionals are also a well-educated group, with 70% having earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. The salaries tend to reflect that, as those with a doctorate earn the most, $135,111, followed by those with a master’s degree at $112,195. Those with a bachelor’s degree, the largest group among respondents, earned $98,822.

Every year, we look for any sign that the gender gap is starting to narrow between the number of males and females in the safety profession, but unfortunately, 2023 doesn’t look like it’s the year that will happen. Males account for more than two-thirds of all respondents (70%), and they earn nearly $13,000 more on average than females. A year ago, males accounted for 68% of the total and earned nearly $12,000 more than females, so if anything, the gap has widened over the past year—not an encouraging sign at all.

There’s also not much evidence that the safety profession is becoming more ethnically diverse, as 82% of all respondents are whites/Caucasian—the same percentage as we saw in 2022. The next-largest group, Hispanic/Latino, accounts for 7% (up from 5% in 2022). As we noted earlier, our survey draws most of its respondents from the manufacturing and construction industries, which obviously still have a lot of work to do in encouraging and promoting a more diverse workplace.

While our survey results don’t really reflect it, more than two-thirds of respondents (68%) say their companies have launched diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, a slight tick up from the 67% we saw in 2022. If nothing else, that at least offers some hope that things could be changing for the better in the not-too-distant future.

It's Not Just What You do but Where You do it

The most populous region of the United States for safety professionals is the North Central region, also known as the Midwest. One-third of all safety leaders lives in one of the Midwest states, which makes sense since that’s where most of the manufacturing facilities in the country are located. The area with the highest salaries is the Pacific region (with most of those respondents living in California). Now before those of you living in Iowa or Wisconsin start daydreaming about moving out West to gain a big salary bump, you’ll want to factor in the differences in the cost of living between the Midwest and the West Coast. That $19,000 gap between Midwest salaries ($94,339) and West Coast salaries ($113,294) narrows considerably when you start comparing, for instance, the average cost of housing.

EHS professionals work in various settings, with the largest percentage (37%) working in a plant or facility. One-quarter (25%) are corporate staff, and 11% work at a worksite or construction site. That coincides with EHS Today’s readership demographics, which focuses largely on the manufacturing and construction industries.

When we asked how satisfied they were with EHS as a career path, 84% of those surveyed said they’re either satisfied or very satisfied with the safety profession. Only 2% said they’re unsatisfied, and hardly anybody—less than a handful of the 744 respondents—said they’re very unsatisfied. That’s very positive news for the EHS profession, and an illustration of how EHS people view their careers as more of a calling than simply a job.

Respondents aren’t quite as satisfied with their current jobs as they are with the EHS profession as a whole, but the numbers are still encouraging. More than three-quarters (76%) said they’re satisfied or very satisfied with where they’re working and what they’re doing. Only 9% said they were unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with their jobs.

Our thanks to all of those safety leaders who were willing to share the challenges, frustrations, accomplishments and celebrations that characterize a life dedicated to occupational health and safety, and for letting us in on some of the secrets of your success. You’re all heroes!

THE REST OF THE STORY

You can find more salary information and insights from the 2023 National Safety and Salary Survey at in our exclusive slideshow, "The Biggest Challenges for Safety Professionals in 2023." Learn what safety leaders had to say about leading indicators, the most common injuries at their companies and their opinions about federal/state OSHA.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

  • Assistance with safety. I am the only safety professional here.
  • Increase budget for training.
  • New leadership that puts the same importance on EHS as they do on production.
  • More autonomy in decision-making.
  • The mindset of people when it comes to safety—recognizing the importance of doing the right thing all the time.
  • More investment in innovative technology.
  • Having more authority to change and implement change without red tape.
  • Safety needs to become a stand-alone department. Safety should not report to other departments.
  • More time in the field.
  • Not being considered the “safety police.”
  • Fewer environmental compliance issues.
  • I love my job, so nothing.

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