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Within the nursing field, there are a wide variety of specialties that nurses can pursue as a career choice. In this post, we’re spotlighting the occupational health nurse (OHN).

Barb Maxwell MHA, RN, COHN-S, CCM, CWCP, QRP, FAAOHN, is the President of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN), as well as the Division Director of Company Care Occupational Health Services for HCA West Florida Division. She explains what OHNs are and what they do.

What is an Occupational Health Nurse?

Occupational Health is a specialty within nursing that cares for our own employees, employers within the communities, insurance companies, and community health needs. Depending on the role that is chosen (Employee Health within an organization or working in industry) will depend on the tasks that will be deemed necessary to deliver.

We perform pre-employment post-offer nursing assessments, medical surveillance, drug screening, case management within workers’ compensation claims, and many more duties as assigned.

Why did you decide to become an Occupational Health Nurse?

I was an Emergency Department RN, then promoted to Director caring for emergent patients. Our facility appointed me to establish an initiative to start up a comprehensive Occupational Health Program to service our employers within the community. After much training in Occupational Health, our facility opened the program in October 1986 to service our employers.

While reflecting back within our own hospital, we had an opportunity to enhance the existing Employee Health Program to collaborate with the new developed program. Our employee health program was very weak, and we identified many opportunities to improve the processes. 

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We changed that concept quickly with our facility being the first customer of our newly developed Occupational Health Program. We realized the increase in employee satisfaction was meeting their needs.

What could an OHN do on a regular day? Please explain.

Occupational Health Nurses do so many things on a day-to-day basis. We have good intentions of setting our schedules that can change quickly depending on what the priorities are. 

We perform pre-employment post offer assessments; identify and assess risks from hazards in the workplace; medical surveillance that may affect our employees; advise on occupational health, safety, and ergonomics; first aid; and prevention of occupational disease and accidents. 

What are some of the greatest challenges of being an OHN?

Proving our worth to our organization. Getting everything accomplished in a day. The need of staffing ratios.

What are the greatest rewards?

Caring for our employees and helping them through their medical and vocational issues.

If nurses want to become OHNs, what would you say to them? What kind of training/education do they need?

It is the most rewarding position I have worked in. You will never regret taking a position in Occupational Health. You are the employee’s nurse.

Occupational Health Nurses are typically registered nurses, with education backgrounds varying from diploma nurses to doctoral degrees. There is no “set” educational requirement, but practice expectations would be dependent on the scope of practice of their educational preparation. When I hire nurses to become occupational health nurses, I look for strong clinical backgrounds; personalities that will meld with the employees; team players; critical thinkers who can work autonomously. Emergency and Critical Care backgrounds are a plus.

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Is there anything else about being an OHN that is important for people to know?

Occupational health is a specialty field with a generalist approach. We work in tandem with other medical disciplines, human resources, and safety professionals. We recognize that our role extends beyond just the employees at the workplace, but also their families and support they have at home. This is considered a Total Worker Health approach, since the profession is truly an interprofessional collaboration in order to keep worker and worker families healthy and safe.

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