How to Become an Occupational Nurse

NurseJournal Staff
Updated June 27, 2022
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Occupational health nurses help make workplaces safer and healthier. Learn how to become an occupational health nurse, including education and licensing requirements.
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Occupational health nurses provide nursing care to workers, treat work-related injuries and conditions, and help make workplaces and workers healthier and safer. Many earn six-figure salaries, especially at the nurse practitioner or corporate director level.

This guide explains how to become an occupational health nurse and what the work is like. Find out if becoming an occupational health nurse is the right choice for you.

What Is an Occupational Health Nurse?

Occupational health nurses treat and work to prevent work-related injuries or illnesses. They also manage employee health and health insurance claims. Their workplaces include hospitals or health systems, occupational health providers, or employer worksites. Some work for insurance providers or government agencies that regulate workplace conditions.

While most occupational health nurses care for patients who perform manual labor in jobs with a higher rate of occupational hazards, they can also work onsite at large corporations with desk jobs. Work is more like a traditional medical office at large businesses. They care for patients with a variety of conditions and often advise on workplace health and safety.

Steps to Becoming an Occupational Health Nurse

How to become an occupational health nurse depends on how long you want to spend in formal education before practicing. The typical path is to earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree and get a registered nursing (RN) license.

  1. 1

    BSN degree from an Accredited Nursing Program.

    A BSN degree takes four years for full-time students. If you are returning to school after earning an associate degree in nursing (ADN), many schools offer an RN-to-BSN degree program that takes one additional year, rather than two.

  2. 2

    Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to Receive RN Licensure.

    The NCLEX-RN exam is the national test that all aspiring nurses must pass to earn their state license. It is multiple choice and covers the same topics as the nursing curriculum. The NCLEX-RN pass rate is an excellent measure of a nursing program’s quality.

  3. 3

    Gain Experience in Occupational Health Nursing.

    The most direct approach is to gain experience in an entry-level occupational health role. However, you may be able to work in an acute care function to gain experience with treating illnesses and injuries if there are not any occupational health jobs near you.

  4. 4

    Consider Becoming a Certified Occupational Health Nurse

    Certification is not a legal requirement for becoming an occupational health nurse, but it can be valuable. Many employers prefer or require it, especially for leadership or supervisory roles. The American Board of Occupational Health Nurses (ABOHN) offers the most common certifications.

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Occupational Health Nurse Education

Becoming an occupational nurse means earning a nursing degree and an RN license, but there are two different educational pathways.

The ADN is faster, but the BSN is more comprehensive. Many employers prefer or require the BSN for higher-level roles. More advanced certification requires a bachelor’s degree, though not necessarily a BSN.

ADN Degree

An ADN degree takes two years, compared to four years for a BSN. The admission requirements are typically less demanding, and the tuition is often much lower. However, the BSN is more comprehensive and more valuable for career advancement.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; math and science courses

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Practical nursing skills like running tests and taking vital signs; communication; ethical and legal considerations

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    Two years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Administering medications and treatments; patient safety; infection and injury prevention and control

BSN Degree

A BSN degree takes twice as long as an ADN degree, but it covers additional topics and provides more depth. Many employers require or prefer a BSN for higher-level roles or roles with more responsibilities.

A BSN also prepares nurses to earn a master’s degree in nursing to become an advanced practice nurse, such as a nurse practitioner.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; math and science courses; typically a 3.0 GPA

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Practical nursing skills; public health; nursing informatics; nursing research

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    Four years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Administering medications and treatments; taking a medical history and recording symptoms; updating health records; preventing injury and infections; public and population health promotion

Occupational Health Nurse Licensure and Certification

The two primary certifications are the certified occupational health nurse and the certified occupational health nurse specialist (COHN-S), both from the ABOHN. Both require a current and unencumbered RN license and 3,000 hours of occupational health nursing experience (some equivalents are allowed) during the last five years.

The COHN-S credential also requires a bachelor’s degree, though not necessarily in nursing.

While certification is not a required step in how to become an occupational health nurse, it is a valuable credential. It demonstrates your knowledge of occupational health and your commitment to the field.

Many employers require or give strong preference to applicants with a certification.

Working as an Occupational Health Nurse

Occupational health nurse jobs are somewhat less common than jobs in other nursing specialties. However, they are still in demand and well compensated as occupational health nurses.

According to a 2018 salary survey by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN), the median annual salary is $83,000. Occupational health nurses with the COHN-S credential earn a median $95,150. Becoming an occupational health nurse is especially rewarding for those at the corporate director level, as they earn a median $126,000.

Depending on the workplace, responsibilities generally include:

  • Assessing workplace illnesses and injuries
  • Conducting testing
  • Providing treatment within the professional scope of practice
  • Referring employees to other treatment and resources as appropriate
  • Performing workplace safety assessments
  • Determining if a patient is fit to return to work after an injury or illness
  • Maintaining records and reporting any patterns of injury while preserving patient confidentiality

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Occupational Health Nurse

question-mark-circleHow many years does it take to become an occupational health nurse?

Becoming an occupational health nurse takes at least two years to earn an ADN degree and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. A BSN takes four years, but it can be more valuable.

question-mark-circleWhat do nurses in occupational health do?

Responsibilities vary according to the workplace, but they generally include assessing patients, providing some treatment for illnesses or injuries, referring patients, and promoting health and safety in the workplace.

question-mark-circleWhat skills do you need to become an occupational health nurse?

In addition to nursing skills, you must be up to date with workplace dangers, an effective communicator who can lead change in individual habits or in the workplace, and good at systems thinking to understand the underlying causes of patterns of illness or injury.

question-mark-circleDo occupational health nurses get paid well?

The 2021 median annual salary for all RNs is $77,600, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is less than the median $83,000 that the 2018 AAOHN survey reports, especially since most nursing salaries have increased since then. Certified occupational health nurses earn even more, as those with the COHN-S credential earned a median $95,150 in 2018.

Page last reviewed June 21, 2022

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