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
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.
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
Earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or an associate degree in nursing (ADN).
A traditional BSN
takes four years to complete compared to two years for an ADN
. Accelerated RN-to-BSN programs or bridge programs may shorten the time needed to earn a nursing degree.
Pass the NCLEX-RN to receive RN licensure.
OHNs must hold a valid RN license in the state where they intend to practice. Graduates of ADN or BSN programs apply to take the NCLEX-RN exam
through their state nurse licensing board.
Gain experience in occupational health nursing.
OHN positions usually require approximately five years of medical/surgical nursing or intensive care nursing experience. RNs planning to acquire OHN certification need a minimum of 3,000 clinical hours.
Consider becoming a certified occupational health nurse.
Although voluntary, the certified occupational health nurse
(COHN) or the certified occupational health nurse-specialist (COHN-S) credential may enhance hiring prospects and career opportunities.
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.
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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 Nurses
This 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 Center
Free 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 Nursing
ABOHN 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 Nursing
A 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, RN, MSN is a registered nurse who started in a general medical/surgical care unit and then moved to infertility care where she worked for almost 10 years. She has also worked for over 13 years as a freelance writer specializing in consumer health sites and educational materials for nursing students. Galan currently works as a full-time freelancer and recently earned her master’s degree in nursing education from Capella University.