Occupational Health Nurse Career Overview
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An occupational health nurse (OHN) delivers programs and services that develop and maintain healthy and safe workplace environments. These registered nurses (RNs) assess risks, promote wellness, prevent illness and injury, and protect employees from exposure to work-related or environmental hazards.
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What Does an Occupational Health Nurse Do?
OHNs carry out an array of roles and duties as caregivers, administrators, educators, and consultants. Depending on their employment setting, these RNs collaborate with other healthcare professionals, business and human resources managers, government officials, and security specialists. Key responsibilities include the following:
- Case management for insurance claims, workers' compensation, and disability benefits
- Counseling, crisis intervention, and employee assistance programs
- Health and wellness promotion and developing risk reduction strategies
- Legal and regulatory compliance
- Hazard detection and risk assessment in workplaces
- Interest in health and safety issues
- Problem solving, communication, and teaching skills
- Ability to work with diverse populations and in risky environments
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Where Do Occupational Health Nurses Work?
RNs can find OHN jobs in clinical and nonclinical settings.
Hospitals and Medical Clinics
Many OHNs work in these settings, treating patients with work-related injuries and illnesses, providing emergency services, and conducting drug and alcohol screening.
Manufacturing and Production Departments
These nurses' duties vary by employer. They may conduct pre-employment examinations, create employee fitness programs, and serve as case managers for insurance claims.
Government agencies employ OHNs to conduct risk assessment research, develop industry-wide safety regulations, and create emergency preparedness policies.
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Why Become an Occupational Health Nurse?
While not as widely known as other nursing specialties, a career as an OHN offers significant personal and professional fulfillment promoting wellness and safety in diverse work environments.
Advantages to Becoming an OHN
Rewarding collaborations with other healthcare professionals, health and safety specialists, and business managers striving to provide safe and hazard-free work environments
Career opportunities available in less stressful nonclinical environments
More focus on preventive care and wellness rather than disease treatment and life-and-death situations
High job satisfaction and competitive salaries, especially for those with advanced degrees, certifications, and experience
Disadvantages to Becoming an OHN
Slower job growth compared to other nursing specialties
Additional skills and training required beyond RN licensure
Potential exposure to dangerous work environments
Physically taxing work requires standing and walking for inspections and assessments
Less recognition in the nursing profession than other specialties
How to Become an Occupational Health Nurse
Pass the NCLEX-RN to receive RN licensure.
Gain experience in occupational health nursing.
Consider becoming a certified occupational health nurse.
Learn More About How to Become an Occupational Health Nurse
How Much Do Occupational Health Nurses Make?
Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide data specific to OHNs, the organization projects an average of 175,900 openings for all RNs from 2019 to 2029. According to the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses’ 2018 compensation survey, the median OHN salary has increased by 11% since 2013. In 2018, OHNs earned an average salary approaching $87,000.
Compensation varies by type of certification and degree level. Those with COHN-S and COHN-S/Case Manager certifications enjoy significantly higher salaries, making $95,150 and $97,150 a year respectively. OHNs who hold a master of science in nursing or a doctor of nursing practice degree can expect average annual salaries over $100,000.
Opportunities for Career Advancement
Industries must implement workplace wellness and safety plans to comply with U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations that protect employees. Increasingly, corporations hire on-site OHNs to help them achieve compliance, reduce costs due to injuries and illness, and reduce workers' compensation and disability claims.
COHN certifications, graduate degrees, and advanced practice RN training prepare prospective OHNs for the most rewarding career paths. These credentials ready candidates for management positions implementing health and safety protocols and administering budgets for programs and staff. OHNs also take supervisory positions in case management, overseeing policies and claims. As consultants, they conduct research and advise corporate clients in disease prevention, emergency preparedness, or legislative compliance.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to become an OHN?
Prospective OHNs usually earn a BSN, which can take up to four years in a traditional program, and then apply for an RN license. A master's or doctoral program requires 2-5 more years of study. Many employers prefer to hire nurses with occupational health certifications that require a minimum of 3,000 clinical hours.
What is the difference between COHN and COHN-S certification?
The COHN certification focuses primarily on clinical practice. This credential best serves nurses who spend more than 50% of their time providing direct patient care and performing tasks such as spirometry or audiology. Nurses who spend more than half of their time in management and administrative practice, engaging in policy development, program planning, and budget and fiscal areas, benefit from COHN-S certification.
Can a licensed practical nurse or licensed vocational nurse (LPN/LVN) be an OHN?
An LPN/LVN may work as an OHN only under an RN or a medical supervisor. These positions require a high school diploma and completion of an approved LPN/LVN program. While LPNs/LVNs may find job opportunities in occupational health, most employers prefer to hire COHN-certified RNs who hold BSNs or graduate degrees.
What types of nursing experience are important for OHNs?
OHNs typically enter the field after earning an undergraduate nursing degree with specialties or gaining clinical experience in ambulatory care, critical care, emergency nursing, or community health. OHNs may decide to pursue a master's or doctoral degree to strengthen their professional competencies in advanced practice nursing, public health, and business.
Resources for Occupational Health Nurses
American Association of Occupational Health NursesThis professional association provides education and access to research, public policy information, and resources for occupational and environmental health nurse practice. AAOHN members enjoy networking opportunities, updates on industry trends, and webinars and digital collections that address issues like disability case management, health promotion, and safety and environmental regulations.
AAOHN Career CenterFree to members, the AAOHN's official online Career Center offers a full range of professional services for job seekers and employers. The Career Center offers job coaching and provides help with reference checking, resume writing, and creating LinkedIn profiles. Members may post resumes, apply for jobs, and sign up for job alerts.
American Board for Occupational Health NursingABOHN serves as the sole independent certification board for OHNs. The board establishes professional standards for the field and administers the COHN, COHN-S, and case manager credentials. ABOHN also places job postings for employers seeking board-certified OHNs.
OSHA's Office of Occupational Medicine and NursingA division of OSHA, OOMN helps employers comply with regulations, from enforcement and rulemaking to outreach and training activities. OOMN administers the OSHA Medical Examination Program for agency compliance officers and clinical programs for physicians and RNs.
Nicole Galan, RN, MSN
Nicole Galan is a registered nurse who earned a master's degree in nursing education from Capella University and currently works as a full-time freelance writer. Throughout her nursing career, Galan worked in a general medical/surgical care unit and then in infertility care. She has also worked for over 13 years as a freelance writer specializing in consumer health sites and educational materials for nursing students.
Galan is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners.
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