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Occupational Health Nurse: How to Become & What to Expect from This Fulfilling Career Path

Occupational Health Nurse: How to Become & What to Expect from This Fulfilling Career Path

Occupational health nursing is a wonderful career track for aspiring nurses interested in the less traditional nursing paths. 

As an occupational health nurse (OHN), you will work to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses, promote healthy work environments, and provide care for injured or ill workers—a tremendously important and rewarding career mission. 

In this blog post, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about pursuing a career in occupational health nurse. We cover how to become an OHN, the skills you need to be a professional and capable voice for worker health in this day and age, salary expectations, job outlook, and much more! 

Let’s get started!

What Is an Occupational Health Nurse?

Occupational Health Nurses (OHN) are RNs who play a critical role in ensuring the health and safety of workers in various industries.

 An official definition of occupational health nursing comes from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). According to the organization, an Occupational Health Nurse (OHN) is a registered nurse who independently observes and assesses the worker’s health status with respect to job tasks and hazards. Using their specialized experience and education, these registered nurses recognize and prevent health effects from hazardous exposures and treat workers’ injuries and illnesses.

The Occupational Health Nursing Field: How Did It Start?

The United States is one of the pioneering countries with one of the world’s most advanced occupational health nursing practices.

The first Occupational Health Nurse was hired in 1895 and worked as a clinician to provide emergency care for work-related injuries and visit the homes of the employees and their families for health education.

However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the federal government legally obligated employers to promote workers’ safety and health. At that point, many health hazards related to workplace exposure and working conditions had resulted in illness and injuries, becoming social problems. When the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, employers became legally obligated to provide employees with working conditions free of known hazards. 

That was the true game-changer. And that point onwards, the field of occupational health nursing flourished. 

Nowadays, OHNs have a wide range of responsibilities as they can work in different industry sectors and can be responsible for varied numbers of employees. 

Occupational Health Nurse Jobs: What Subspecialties Can You Choose From?

Some of the most common job roles within the field are:

  • OHN Clinician: This role is held by nurses qualified in the practice of medicine within an occupational setting.
  • OHN Manager: RNs responsible for planning, organizing, directing, operating, and evaluating an occupational health program for an entire agency, corporation, or work site.
  • OHN Consultant: A professional who provides professional or expert advice in a particular area, such as occupational health, safety and/or case management.
  • OHN Nurse Practitioner (NP): Nurse practitioners treat both physical and mental conditions through comprehensive history taking, physical exams, and ordering tests for interpretation. NPs can provide a diagnosis and recommendations for a wide range of acute and chronic diseases (within their scope of practice) and provide appropriate treatment for patients, including prescribing medications in most states.

What Do Occupational Health Nurses Do?

occupational health nurse performing task

Occupational Health Nurses have a wide range of responsibilities. They will see their duties fall into four major categories: clinician, educator, manager, and consultant. 

The Role of an Occupational Health Nurse as a Clinician:

OHNs provide direct patient care to employees, often in an occupational health clinic or at the worksite. They assess and treat work-related injuries and illnesses, conduct pre-employment and periodic health examinations, administer immunizations and medications, and provide health counseling and education. They also monitor the health status of employees and coordinate medical referrals when necessary.

Duties related to the Educator role:

OHNs develop and implement health and safety training programs for employees, supervisors, and managers. They also coordinate and facilitate health and wellness initiatives like exercise, smoking cessation, and stress reduction programs. They collaborate with other professionals, such as industrial hygienists and ergonomists, to identify and mitigate workplace hazards and promote safe work practices.

Managerial/Advisory Roles Held by OHNs

Occupational Health Nurses may manage an occupational health clinic or department, including supervising staff, managing budgets, and overseeing operations. They also advise management on health and safety policies, regulations, and compliance issues. OHNs may participate in workplace health and safety committees, provide guidance on disability management and return-to-work programs, and develop emergency preparedness plans.

Consultant-level Responsibilities That Fall Under the OHN Role

OHNs may provide consulting services to employers or other organizations on occupational health and safety issues. 

They will work with employers to develop and implement health and safety policies and procedures, such as protocols for handling hazardous materials or responding to workplace accidents. OHNs can also conduct workplace health and safety audits, assess environmental and ergonomic hazards, and develop strategies for preventing workplace injuries and illnesses. On top of that, OHNs may provide expert testimony in legal proceedings related to workplace health and safety.

Additionally, Occupational Health Nurses can participate in research.

How to Become an Occupational Health Nurse?

How to become an occupational health nurse

If you’re interested in a career as an Occupational Health Nurse, the answer you’re probably most looking forward to is: How to become an Occupational Health Nurse? 

Becoming an Occupational Health Nurse takes two to four years, with RN licensure being the minimum requirement. In this section, we’ll discuss the path to becoming an OHN, including education, experience, and certification requirements. 

Step 1: Obtain a nursing degree

The first step in any nursing career is to earn a degree in nursing. Two main paths to that are a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is preferred, but an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) may also be sufficient to secure a job in occupational health nursing.

Regardless of which path you choose, nursing school can be challenging. Find out more about the challenges of getting a nursing degree and how to overcome them. 

An ADN program is the fastest route to RN licensure. It takes around two years to complete this degree, and once you complete this educational program, you are eligible to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam. 

A BSN degree can be obtained in about four years. However, the time investment is worth it in the long run because a Bachelor’s degree in nursing has numerous benefits over an ADN. A BSN prepares you more thoroughly for all the challenges of a nursing career and presents you with more job opportunities, higher pay, and greater career advancement possibilities. 

Employers tend to have a strong preference for BSN-trained RNs as well. According to an annual survey by the AACN, over 70% of employers strongly prefer BSN program graduates.

Read more about the benefits of a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing for RNs

If you’re after a quality education that will prepare you for the life of an RN, your best bet is a BSN degree from Nightingale College. This program is carefully designed to advance your nursing skills, prepare you for the NCLEX, and, more importantly, equip you with the knowledge and abilities required to succeed as a Registered Nurse. 

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If you started your nursing career via the ADN route, you can always advance your education with a bridge RN-to-BSN program. The RN-to-BSN program offered by Nightingale College is online, 100% career friendly, and can be completed in as few as 12 months. 

Step 2. Get licensed as a Registered Nurse

To practice nursing, just completing a nursing degree is not enough. You must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and obtain a state nursing license. 

The NCLEX-RN is no ordinary test. It will be the crowning achievement of your nursing education. It’s a five-hour exam that tests your knowledge and preparedness to become a nurse. Once you pass it, you can apply for licensure with your state’s board of nursing. 

RNs must renew their license periodically, which usually requires continuing education credits.

Step 3: Gain Clinical Experience

Most OHN positions require at least two years of clinical experience in nursing. This can be in any nursing specialty, such as medical-surgical, emergency room, or critical care. Spending time in clinical nursing roles is an excellent foundational experience for any RN, regardless of whether they pursue bedside nursing careers or choose alternative nursing roles

Step 3: Obtain Certification

Certification is not always required for RNs, but it can enhance job opportunities and salary. It’ll also make you more confident in your expertise and will testify to your commitment and excellence in this particular field of nursing. 

Here are some more reasons why getting certified is an excellent career move.

The American Board for Occupational Health Nurses (ABOHN) offers two significant certification opportunities for aspiring RNs:

  • Certified Occupational Health Nurse (COHN). This examination focuses on OHN clinician practice. In order to be eligible for this credential, you need to have a current active RN license and you need at least 3000 hours in occupational health nursing in the past five years;
  • Certified Occupational Health Nurse-Specialist (COHN-S) is focused on Occupational Health Nurses who’re more interested in administration in the workplace. The eligibility criteria include a current and unencumbered RN license, 3000 hours in occupational health nursing in the past five years, and holding a Bachelor’s Degree or higher (does not need to be in Nursing.)

Step 4: Seek Continuing Education

OHNs must stay up-to-date with changes in occupational health laws and regulations, as well as developments in the field. Continuing education courses and seminars can help OHNs maintain their certification and improve their knowledge and skills.

Learn more about the importance of continuing education for Registered Nurses.

Step 5: Enjoy Your Career in Occupational Health

Once you have completed the necessary education and certification, there’s one thing left for you to do. Reap the benefits of your hard work. Becoming an Occupational Health RN is an achievement worth celebrating!

Occupational Health Nurse Salary Outlook

As with any profession, the salary of an occupational health nurse can vary depending on several factors, such as experience, education, location, and the industry in which they work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for registered nurses, including OHNs, was $77,600 in May 2021. However, the BLS does not provide specific salary data for OHNs.

ZipRecruiter lists the average base pay for an occupational health nurse in the United States as $73,707 per year. The website also indicates that OHNs can earn as little as $55,000 per year and as much as $104,000 per year, depending on various factors.

According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN) in 2022, the average starting salary of OHNs is $82,409. The survey also reported that OHNs with certification and/or advanced degrees tended to earn higher wages than those without. For example, COHN Certified nurses reported salaries of around $93,531, while COHN-S RNs cashed in about $112,408 a year. 

It’s essential to remember that salaries can vary depending on location, industry, and other factors, so it’s always a good idea to research salary data for your specific area and career path.

Where Do Occupational Health Nurses Work?

Occupational Health Nurses can find various job opportunities in many different environments, from Fortune 100 companies to consulting firms. Some of the most common employers for OHNs are:

  • Corporations and Businesses
  • Manufacturing and production facilities
  • Factories
  • Hospitals and medical centers 
  • Government agencies
  • Consulting firms
  • Independent Practice

Generally, OHNs enjoy an excellent work-life balance, with schedules falling in the traditional 9-to-5 Monday to Friday range. It’s also one of the least stressful nursing careers

What Skills Are Important for OH Nurses?

skills necessary to become an OH nurse

Occupational Health Nurses (OHNs) require unique skills and knowledge to perform their job effectively. Here are some of the key skills and attributes that are important for OHNs:

  • Clinical skills: OHNs must have a strong understanding of clinical concepts and be able to apply this knowledge to manage and treat occupational injuries and illnesses.
  • Communication skills: OHNs must interact and communicate efficiently with various stakeholders, including employees, employers, healthcare providers, and regulatory agencies.
  • Problem-solving skills: Occupational Health Nurses often encounter complex occupational health and safety issues in their work, requiring a creative and innovative approach.
  • Cultural competence: OHNs should work well with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds and understand the cultural factors that can impact occupational health and safety.
  • Analytical skills: OHNs must be able to analyze data and trends to identify potential occupational health and safety risks and develop effective strategies for prevention.

Occupational Health Nursing: Career Outlook

The importance of health and wellness in the workplace has been receiving increasing attention in recent years. As such, occupational health nursing is becoming increasingly attractive for those looking to enter the healthcare industry. Occupational health nursing is considered a vital part of the broader category of occupational health and safety specialties, which according to the BLS, are projected to grow by 5% by 2031.

Many corporations now include wellness programs to help minimize their employees’ risks for illness or injury, creating even more opportunities for OHNs to make a meaningful impact in their field.

Are You Ready to Become an Occupational Health Nurse?

If you’re an aspiring nurse looking for a career path, Occupational Health Nursing might be just the thing for you! With the demand for occupational health and safety specialists on the rise, now is the perfect time to consider a career as an OHN. So why wait? 

Enroll in Nightingale College’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree or advance your education with our online RN-to-BSN program. Start your journey toward becoming an OHN today!

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