Occupational Health Nursing Week: Safety, Wellness are the Name of the Game for OHNs

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Celebrate National Occupational Health Nursing Week

The week of April 18-22, marks National Health Nursing Week. This year's theme is "OHNs: Making Your Workplace and Community Healthy and Safe," in an effort to urge occupational health nurses to use this time to educate government, media, employers and companies and the general public about their role in health care and the importance of health and wellness in the workplace.

Helpful Resources

American Association of Occupational Health Nurses

American Board for Occupational Health Nurses, Inc.

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By Kristin Rothwell, NurseZone associate editor

Occupational health nurses have taken an important role in many companies across the country as they try to help drive down the high cost of poor employee health while maximizing employee productivity by contributing to a healthier bottom line.

A recent study commissioned by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN) found that keeping employees happy might actually correlate with keeping them healthy after more than 50 percent of respondents said they would remain at their current job if their employer offered a health and wellness program.

Further findings showed that more than half of employees surveyed (61 percent) preferred to receive health and wellness information from a health care consultant or on-site nurse, compared to pamphlets or brochures (18 percent).

"It makes perfect sense that respondents want a health and wellness program administered by a health care professional," AAOHN president Susan Randolph, said in a recent statement. "In all aspects of our life we seek help from industry professionals—an accountant for our taxes, mechanic for our car problems, plumber for our plumbing problems—so when it comes to matters of personal health, a health care professional would naturally be the most trusted source and more of an incentive for employees to utilize a health and wellness program."

Sandra J. Simpson, APRN, BC, COHN-S, CCM, manager of Occupational Health Services at Schering-Plough, a pharmaceutical company based in Memphis, Tennessee, has proof that employees take advantage of company-offered wellness programs.

RNs Reach Employee Population

For the past 13 years, Simpson has been serving her company’s 600 employees by promoting and providing health and wellness programs, including various screening initiatives.

"I think one of the best things that I ever did was change the ‘Wellness Calendar’ to match and tag along with the national media blitz on certain issues," Simpson said. "I was able to draw on what people saw on television or heard on their way to work, so that when they saw it in their workplace it would be…, ‘Oh yeah, we’re doing that at work, too."

For instance, during February, the American Heart Association promotes heart health month and that’s when Simpson holds the company’s cholesterol screenings—an event that employees now look forward to.

"It’s nice to hear that people are interested in participating," she said. "There is nothing better than an employee coming back to me and sharing how much they valued a cholesterol and glucose screening that was done."

In addition to the wellness programs, Simpson is involved with the company’s emergency response planning and she oversees the company’s volunteer first-aid team. The team is certified to use automatic external defibrillators and to administer CPR.

Simpson, who takes pride in knowing that she has provided continuity of care to many of the same employees over a 13-year period, said, "We [occupational nurses] are part of the business and we support people who are here to do other parts of the business."

Jean Randolph, RN, left the critical care arena 23 years ago to take a six-month occupational nursing position while deciding what she wanted to do with her career. It was then that she realized she had found her "calling."

"[Occupational health nursing] was a great choice," said Randolph, who is currently an employee health manager at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in Georgia. "I had no idea and most people don’t unless they get involved in it."

Serving the needs of more than 5,000 employees at Children’s two hospitals and various off-site facilities, Randolph helps maintain a healthy and safe workplace by providing pre-placement and annual physical exams, handling short- and long-term disability, workers’ compensation and family medical leave claims.

But Randolph was quick to admit that occupational health nursing is much more than fulfilling legal and regulatory compliance.

"You have to know a lot about other things," Randolph said. "It’s not just medical issues."

Randolph explained that she helped a health care worker who was experiencing sleep deprivation while trying to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease. To help prevent the employee from causing harm to herself or others, Randolph worked closely with the hospital’s employee assistance program to get the right resources into the hands of the employee.

Quotable Quote

“If you’re good at occupational health, you know about your business and you're conscious about your community and how your business affects your community and how you can make your business successful.” –Jean Randolph, MPA, RN

Randolph said that occupational nurses provide clinical assistance and a listening ear for sound advice when requested.

Richard J. Kowalski, RN, an occupational health nurse for General Motors/Delphi Automotive for 31 years before retiring in March 2003 to become a consultant, agreed.

"You’re a local counselor in a way," Kowalski said.

He explained that oftentimes employees simply need somebody to talk to and who they can rely on for support, advice or a new perspective on an issue while knowing that any discussions are confidential.

When Kowalski entered occupational nursing in 1970, OSHA was just a year away from being implemented.

"Thanks to OSHA, I got my job," said Kowalkski, who explained that his company was newly required by OSHA to provide all 8,500 of its hourly employees hearing checks through the hearing conservation program.

He would eventually go on to provide other services, including physical exams. The physicals proved to be very useful for many employees, including a young male employee who, after complaining of heart problems, had an EKG done by the occupational nursing staff. The results were abnormal. Further studies by physicians confirmed a tumor in the employee’s heart, which was resolved with surgery.

"He never would have known about [his heart condition] if he hadn’t done the physical," said Kowalski. "When you see you’ve helped one person, it makes it all worthwhile."

Tools of the Trade

As companies downsize, the number of occupational nurses available to help employees decreases.

Kowalski explained that when he was hired by General Motors there were 27 occupational nurses, and when he retired, he was the supervisor for seven occupational nurses, most of whom were contract emloyees.

"The majority of occupational nurses are the medical person," he said. "You have a lot of responsibility, but you’re given a lot of respect because people are counting on you."

With fewer occupational nurses in the workplace, it requires that they have strong clinical skills, a wide-knowledge base in terms of medical information, the confidence to make decisions and the know-how to work independently.

"You don’t have to know it all but you do need to know where to get that information or who to get that information from," Randolph said. "Networking in the community is really important."

Simpson added that it’s also important for occupational nurses to constantly refresh their skills.

"A lot of what I do [is not] routine…if I was doing the same screenings from 10 years ago it would be behind the times," she said. "I think it’s a challenge each day to improve upon what’s been done in the past."

Randolph said, "There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new."

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