The job of an occupational health nurse is to provision for preventative measures that ensure the health and safety of workers in virtually any type of work setting, particularly those settings in which injury may be more likely due to the presence of toxins, machinery, or heavy equipment. Working closely with employers and management, occupational health nurses strive to ensure that all health and safety standards are met in an effort to safeguard the health and well being of employees in corporate, industrial, governmental, or academic settings. Although they function in a collaborative relationship with employers, occupational health nurses always act as advocates for the rights of employees by ensuring access to preventative health and safety measures.
It is the occupational health nurse who works toward maximizing employee productivity and overall health and safety so that disability claims, on-the-job injury claims, and absenteeism are all greatly reduced. As such, occupational health nurses create a safer and healthier work environment to the benefit of all.
The role of the occupational health nurse is a multi-faceted and diverse one, as these advanced nursing professionals serve as healthcare providers, safety inspectors, educators, and architects of new health and safety measures and programs. The job duties of an occupational health nurse may include:
- Developing and implementing health and safety programs
- Developing disease prevention programs, such as smoking cessation, exercise, and healthy eating programs
- Documenting all employee injuries and illnesses within the workplace
- Observing and assessing the work environment for potential dangers and hazards
- Treating injuries and illnesses for employees, including follow-ups and referrals
- Overseeing and implementing emergency and disaster preparedness programs and planning
- Serving as a gatekeeper for healthcare services, including rehabilitation and disability matters
- Counseling employees on physical and mental health issues and guiding them toward community resources and/or employee assistance programs
- Monitoring the health status of employees
- Conducting research on the effects of hazardous work conditions or workplace exposures, which may include gathering data and reporting findings to the employer
Occupational health nurses begin their education by becoming registered nurses (RN) who seek graduate-level education in occupational health nursing (OHN).
There are a wide variety of OHN programs for prospective students:
- MSN Community Health Nursing
- MSN Occupational Health Nursing, Adult Nurse Practitioner
- MSN Occupational Health Nursing, Family Nurse Practitioner
- Master’s of Public Health, Occupational Health Nursing
- MSN Primary Health Care, Occupational Health Nurse Practitioner
- MSN Environmental Health, Occupational Health Nursing
Just some of the courses found within the typical OHN curriculum include:
- Strategy for Nursing and Healthcare
- Utilization of Nursing Research in Advanced Practice
- Health Promotion and Risk Reduction Across the Lifespan
- Community Health Nursing and Population Assessment
- Current and Emerging Issues in Occupational Health Practice
- Management for Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety
- Managing Community Based Systems
- Occupational and Environmental Diseases
- Principles of Toxicology
- Current and Emerging Issues in Occupational Health Nursing
In addition to master’s programs, many universities and colleges offer Master’s Entry programs that allow applicants who hold a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing to achieve an MSN in Nursing with a specialization in occupational health nursing. Nurses who hold an MSN in Nursing can also obtain a certificate in occupational health through a post-master’s certificate program.
In addition, some students go on to receive their doctoral degree in occupational health nursing so as to prepare for careers in teaching, research, and consulting.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also offers educational programs and research opportunities in the fields of occupational health nursing, occupational medicine, and occupational safety, including specialized areas within the occupational health and safety field through 17 university-based Education and Research Centers. These interdisciplinary, collaborative programs, which are funded by NIOSH, prepare nurses enrolled in masters and doctoral programs. Many of these programs result in a master’s degree as an Adult Nurse Practitioner with a specialization in occupational health.
Occupational Health Nursing Certification
Upon completion of a graduate-level education in a nursing field related to occupational health, graduates may sit for the national certification exam through the American Board for Occupational Health Nurses (ABOHN).
National certification as either a Certified Occupational Health Nurse (COHN) or a Certified Occupational Health Nurse-Specialist (COHN-S) is often sought out by occupational health nurses as a way to advance their careers and earn more money. Many employers seek certified occupational health nurses because it ensures them that the nursing professional understands the requirements of regulatory agencies and protocols such as OSHA, FMLA, ADA, DOT, HIPPA, etc.
To qualify for COHN certification, the applicant must possess an associate degree or higher and hold an active RN license. This designation focuses mainly on direct clinical care. To qualify for COHN-S certification, the applicant must hold a bachelor’s degree or higher and hold an active RN license. This designation focuses on the roles of management, education, consultation, and case management, as well as direct care.
All applicants must show evidence of having at least 3,000 hours of occupational health nursing work experience in the five years prior to sitting for the exam. Nurses who have completed their education through a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health-sponsored program are exempt from the work experience requirement.
The examination includes 150 questions in a multiple-choice, computer-based setting. Exams are offered at 150 sites throughout the country.
The ABOHN requires nurses to recertify every 5 years. There are no continuing education credit requirements for certification renewal.
Occupational Health Nursing Resources
The American Board for Occupational Health Nurses (ABOHN) is an independent nursing specialty certification board that also sets professional standards. The ABOHN is the sole certifying body for occupational health nurses in the United States.
The American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN) is the primary association for nursing professionals serving the workplace. The AAOHN provides education, research, public policy, and practice resources for both occupational and environmental health nurses.
The Association of Occupational Health Professionals in Healthcare is the only national professional organization that addresses the needs and concerns of the occupational healthcare professional. This organization supports occupational health nurses through conferences, continuing education, publications, and legislative advocacy.
The Northeast Association of Occupational Health Nurses is the northeast chapter of the American Association of Occupational health Nurses.
Salary Expectations for Occupational Health Nurses
The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), in their 2011 AANP National NP Compensation Survey, reported that nurse practitioners in occupational/employee health settings earned an average salary of $99,030. Full-time nurse practitioners in general earned a mean total salary of $98,760.
The geographic regions with the highest base salary for nurse practitioners, as reported in the 2011 AANP survey, were the Plains region (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND and SD), where the average yearly income was $124,540, and the Far West region (AK, CA, HI, NV, OR and WA), where the average yearly income was $107,518.