Health physicists make sure proper care is taken around nuclear reactors,
nuclear weapons, high-energy particle accelerators, X-ray machines and other
sources of radiation used in medical research and therapy.
They work in hospitals, research labs and defense plants. Their work generally
controls the beneficial use of radiation. They prevent contamination in workers,
the public and the environment.
"Health physics means radiation safety. So the role of a health physicist
is to make certain that radiation is being used safely," says Ken Miller.
He is the director of health physics at Penn State University's Milton S.
Hershey Medical Center.
"We deal with all types of radiation sources, which are all potentially
harmful. These include both ionizing radiation -- X-rays or gamma rays --
and non-ionizing, such as lasers and microwaves."
"While we recognize there are many benefits in the medical field and nuclear
power industry research, we also concede there can be a risk of harm," says
Genevieve Roessler. She is a retired health physics professor at the University
of Florida. "Our goal is to make sure the people who are working with radiation
sources are doing so safely, so that the public is not exposed. It's kind
of a watchdog job."
"For example, if you have an industrial nuclear facility, you expect to
have radiation around. And the people who are working in that facility should
know how to handle radiation sources and how to protect themselves by monitoring
how much radiation they are exposed to in their daily work," says Reza Moridi.
Moridi is vice-president of science and technology at the Radiation Safety
"So the job of a health physics professional is to assist these workers
in ensuring their safety."
Health physicists work in many different areas and environments, from uranium
mines and petroleum refineries to research labs and hospital rooms.
"Health physicists work in nuclear power plants, in military environments
where radiation sources are used, in medical research facilities, food sterilization
facilities and other industries where radiation is a tool," says Moridi. "Wherever
radiation sources are used, health physicists can be helpful."
Radiation's medical applications keep health physicists busy. Radiology
is the department at a hospital that diagnoses patients using X-rays and magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI). Miller is head of radiology at the Hershey Medical
"Here on the hospital end of things, we're using radiation in many forms,"
"We look after 100 X-ray machines for use in the diagnosis of patient disease
and conditions. We have a nuclear medicine department that uses radioactive
drugs to perform diagnosis and imaging procedures on patients. We have an
active radiation therapy department that uses radiation to treat cancer patients.
We also monitor the use of surgical lasers."
Health physicists' work environments vary from the field to the lab to
the desk. How much time they spend in each depends on what their job demands.
Their work hours also vary.
"It depends on where they work," says Moridi. "If they work in a nuclear
power plant, they may be partly working in their office, partly in the plant
itself, measuring radioactivity in the work environment. If they're in a uranium
mine, they're working in the mine itself, measuring that environment, then
going back to the office doing reports. Everywhere in the field, it's a combination
of fieldwork and office work."
There are no special physical requirements involved in being a health physicist.
The physical risks like radiation exposure are minimal. "This isn't a high-risk
job," says Paul Mansfeld. He is a radiochemist at a private radiation monitoring
lab in Hebron, Connecticut.
"We survey our facility once a month. And we ourselves are monitored every
three months to gauge how much radiation hits our bodies," he says.
"The radioactive waste that we process gets compacted into 55-gallon steel
drums, which can weigh 200 to 400 pounds. But we generally use machines to
transport these," says Miller. "Other than that, the heaviest instrument you'd
have to lift is maybe 20 pounds."
"Certainly, people with physical disabilities could do it, as there are
many people in the field who are in wheelchairs," says Roessler. "There are
some who are out there in the field, getting samples and working outdoors.
But it's mostly desk work and management."