It is not possible to describe a highly complex and dynamic process such as occupational health nursing simply in terms of core activities or tasks. Occupational Health Nurse (OHA) are constantly learning new skills, adapting current practices to meet new needs and developing new approaches to solving problems and therefore their practice is not static but is constantly improving based upon a core range of skills.
However, within this limitation, it is possible to describe those core areas of knowledge and competence that occupational health nurses use. The following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to give an indication of the wide range of competencies that occupational health nurses demonstrate in practice.
The OHA is skilled in primary prevention of injury or disease. The nurse may identify the need for, assess and plan interventions to, for example modify working environments, systems of work or change working practices in order to reduce the risk of hazardous exposure. Occupational health nurses are skilled in considering factors, such as human behavior and habits in relation to actual working practices. The nurse can also collaborate in the identification, conception and correction of work factors, choice of individual protective equipment, prevention of industrial injuries and diseases, as well as providing advice in matters concerning protection of the environment. Because of the occupational health nurses close association with the workers, and knowledge and experience in the working environment, they are in a good position to identify early changes in working practices, identify workers concerns over health and safety, and by presenting these to management in an independent objective manner can be the catalyst for changes in the workplace that lead to primary prevention.
The OHA is a Registered Nurse with a great deal of clinical experience and expertise in dealing with sick or injured people. The nurse may, where such duties form part of their job, provide initial emergency care of workers injured at work prior to transfer of the injured worker to hospital or the arrival of the emergency services. In many instances, where hazardous conditions exist at work, or where the workplace is far removed from other health care facilities, this role will form a major part of an occupational health nurse’s job. Occupational health nurses employed in mines, on oil rigs, in the desert regions or in areas where the health care systems are not yet fully developed will be familiar with a wide range of emergency care techniques and may have developed additional skills in order to fulfill this role. For others, who are working in situations where the emergency services are on hand, they may simply provide an additional level of support beyond that provided by the industrial first aider.
Occupational health nurses are skilled in assessing client’s health care needs, establish a nursing diagnosis and formulating appropriate nursing care plans, in conjunction with the patient or client groups, to meet those needs. Nurses can then implement and evaluate nursing interventions designed to achieve the care objectives. The nurse has a prominent role in assessing the needs of individuals and groups, and has the ability to analyze, interpret, plan and implement strategies to achieve specific goals. By using the nursing process the nurse contributes to workplace health management and by so doing helps to improve the health of the working population at the shop floor level. Nursing diagnosis is a holistic concept that does not focus solely on the treatment of a specific disease, but rather considers the whole person and their health care needs in the broadest context. It is a health based model rather than a disease based model and nurses have the skills to apply this approach with the working populations they serve.
General Health advice and health assessment
The OHA will be able to give advice on a wide range of health issues, and particularly on their relationship to working ability, health and safety at work or where modifications to the job or working environment can be made to take account of the changing health status of employees.
In many respects employers are not solely concerned with only those conditions that are directly caused by work, but do want their occupational health staff to help address any health related problems that may arise that might influence the employees attendance or performance at work, and many employees appreciate this level of help being provided to them at the workplace because it is so convenient for them. In particular the development of health care services to men at work, younger populations and those from ethnic groups can be most effective in reaching these sometimes difficult to reach populations.
Research and the use of evidence based practice
In addition to utilizing information and knowledge produced by research in various fields to support activities that relate to the occupational health component of their role, occupational health nurses will also utilize fully research information available from many fields to help support the general health of the working population.
Occupational health policy, and practice development, implementation and evaluation
The specialist occupational health nurse may be involved, with senior management in the company, in developing the workplace health policy and strategy including aspects of occupational health, workplace health promotion and environmental health management. The OH nurse is in a good position to advise management on the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of workplace health management strategies and to participate fully in each of these stages. Possibility to perform that role will depend upon level of nurse education, skills and experience.
Occupational health assessment
OHA’s can play an essential role in health assessment for fitness to work, pre-employment or pre-placement examinations, periodic health examinations and individual health assessments for lifestyle risk factors.
Collaboration with occupational physician may be necessary in many instances, depending upon exiting legislation and accepted practice. The nurse can also play an important role in the workplace where informal requests for information, advice on health care matters and health related problems come to light. The nurse is able to observe the individual or group of workers in relation to exposure to a particular hazard and initiate appropriate targeted health assessment where necessary. These activities are often, but not exclusively, undertaken in conjunction with the medical adviser so that where problems are identified a safe system for onward referral exists.
Where workers are exposed to a degree of residual risk of exposure and health surveillance is required by law the OHA will be involved in undertaking routine health surveillance procedures, periodic health assessment and in evaluating the results from such screening processes. The nurse will need a high degree of clinical skill when undertaking health surveillance and maintain a high degree of alertness to any abnormal findings. Early referral to an occupational health physician or other appropriate specialist will be the responsibility of the occupational health nurse where any abnormality is detected. The nurse will be involved in supporting the worker throughout any further examination or investigation, and may help to monitor their health on return to work. Once alerted to the possibility of an adverse health effect the occupational health nurse is in a good position to co-ordinate efforts to re-evaluate working practices in order to help protect others who may be similarly affected.