by Carol Wynn, RN, BSN, OHN, COHC
Occupational Health Nurse

This week, April 3rd through the 9th, marks the annual Occupational Health Nurses Week (OHN) Week. This national observance serves to recognize and celebrate members of the occupational and environmental health nursing profession. Soon I will be coming up on my fourth decade as a medical professional. Throughout my career, I have worn many hats, but no hat  have I enjoyed donning more than that of  an “Occupational Health Nurse.” This profession has been enriching, rewarding and fun…and continues to be so.   

The occupational health nursing specialty not only emerged in the course of my lifetime, but has progressed exponentially to become an integral part of employee health and wellness. Occupational health and safety was initially birthed in the United States in 1970 with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Its goal was to promote the safety of all workers, regardless of job, as too many were injured or killed as a result of performing their tasks. With its creation, the Act prompted the establishment of permanent agencies for specific purposes to achieve better workplace conditions, two of which being: 

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): a component of the Labor Department created to establish and enforce workplace standards 

National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH):  instrumental in initiating research in occupational health and safety

Even though I was a child in 1970, the foundation was laid – one that I would soon grow to appreciate. As a new nurse, I navigated the path down several career choices that “weren’t me”, however before long, I began to learn more about occupational health nursing and embraced its importance. It became evident that I should join in these efforts to protect workers. Quickly, I learned of the many employment opportunities available to me in a variety of settings. And the best part was that such positions would allow my individual independence and autonomy to flourish – something invaluable to me then and now. As I jumped in, several things became apparent:  no two days are ever the same, there are always new things to learn, and I can make a difference in the lives of the employees I serve. Exhilarating? Yes! Boring? Never! Exhausting? Sometimes!  

There are many “perks” that come with being an occupational health nurse. One of my favorites is the ability to choose where to work –from hospitals to factories, pharmaceutical companies to municipalities, retirement communities to insurance agencies, and law offices to consulting firms (and this list is by no means exhaustive). Additionally, an occupational health nurse’s role and responsibilities can widely vacillate, providing a “custom-fit” for the specific populations we serve. We cater our services from an “ala cart” menu, if you will, allowing our clients to pick and choose what will best serve the needs of their specific employee population. So what are some examples of the items on our menu? The list is endless, but can include the following:

Assisting with hiring practices in order to avoid future expenditures, including services such as:

Providing pre-hire drug screens (both DOT and non-DOT), baseline pulmonary function and hearing testing (as many of us are certified in Hearing Conservation by CAOHC)

Orienting and training new hires on topics such as bloodborne pathogens and work-related hazards to minimize any associated risk of exposure

Assistance in the development of job descriptions with measurable components to ensure a job applicant is successfully and appropriately matched to a position fitting of his/her individual strengths and qualifications (saving the client money and time from unnecessary turn-over and employee injuries)

Providing safety and wellness initiatives to promote safety post-hire, including:

Teaching CPR and First-Aid to employees who volunteer for the workplace emergency response team

Helping employees understand a new diagnosis (such as Diabetes or heart disease) and educating them on how to make modifications to improve their overall wellbeing

Educating workers on critical health maintenance topics such as the importance of yearly screens (i.e. prostate testing for men, mammography and PAP smears for women, regular dental care, and annual skin assessments to detect potentially troublesome skin changes)

Collecting laboratory samples for testing and detection of underlying conditions

Administering immunizations to provide protection against pathogens

Performing screenings for infectious disease, such as COVID testing

Planning and participating in annual health fairs

Ongoing identification of occupational hazards, coupled with training and safety measures (this in turn minimizes risk, prevents injuries, lowers employee absenteeism, diminishes claims, and saves endless dollars on workers’ compensation premiums and settlements)

Providing informative wellness presentations and “brown bag lunch talks” to educate employees on various topics targeted to the population at hand

Overseeing the onsite hearing conservation program, including annual audiometry testing and educating employees on the proper use of hearing protection, thereby equipping employees with the knowledge for preventing hearing loss

Providing random, reasonable suspicion, and post-accident drug screens and breath alcohol tests

Serving on the emergency response team, providing medical assessments, and performing post-accident investigations

Performing ergonomic assessments to custom-fit the workstation to the employee, thereby reducing the risk of repetitive motion/cumulative trauma disorders, awkward posture, etc

Establishing meaningful relationships through active listening and compassion, resulting in improved morale and employee relations

Collaboration with peers, involvement in legislation, and membership in organizations that protect and support our professionals (on the State and National levels, i.e. NCOHN, AAOHN)

As occupational health nursing has evolved, more and more employers are recognizing the benefits of having an on-site nurse, as we bring invaluable education, experience, and expertise to the table (much of which has been outlined above). This not only provides added value to an employer, but communicates care and concern to employees. 

To say that the members in the occupational health arena are unique is simply understated. We bring attributes and qualities no one else can. And, in my experience, once someone lands in occupational health nursing, they rarely ever leave. My one regret over the course of my career is not venturing into this line of work sooner. It has truly offered me so much over the years, including a healthy work/life balance, unlike some of my friends who have chosen other career paths. Earlier in my career, I worked “the trenches” with long hours, many weekends, and lots of holidays, all the while my life passed before my weary eyes. But without these less-than-pleasant experiences, I would never have realized just how blessed I am to do what I now do. We never truly appreciate the good without enduring the bad, and all nurses can tell you horror stories of what they have endured at some point and time. It isn’t pretty.  

Do I have challenging days? Sure, but doesn’t everyone? And when I put my career on the scale, it is a clear winner over any other career path I could have chosen. The compensation is the “icing on the cake” – not just in the financial sense, but more so in the “heart” sense. As I rise in the mornings, put on my scrubs, commute to work, and begin my day, I know that what I do is more rewarding than any amount of money I am paid. I have job security, great work environments, a multitude of peers with unlimited knowledge I can draw from, and most importantly, a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Life is good. 

So my hat goes off to all of the other compassionate and hard-working Occupational Health Nurses this week and every week, as we can and do make a difference in the lives of the employees we serve. On any given day, we have the opportunity to provide skilled and compassionate care, and may be able to assist in saving a life or preventing a catastrophic event that could shatter a family. And by this seasoned nurse’s standards, that is simply priceless.

If you have questions or concerns regarding occupational health issues, contact Carol Wynn, RN at (919) 482-5281 or [email protected].