According to one estimate, lost productivity from injury and illness costs American companies $60 billion each year. To have a healthy bottom line, businesses need healthy workers. And keeping workers healthy is the responsibility of the employee or occupational health nurse.
"Our job is to make sure that the employee is safe for the environment, and the environment is safe for the employee," says Mary Brodehl, manager of employee health at Regions Hospital.
Occupational health nurses (OHNs) screen new hires to make sure that they're generally healthy and that they can meet the job's specific physical requirements, such as the ability to lift 50 pounds or stand for long periods.
OHNs also care for sick and injured employees. When the illness or injury is minor, this care is hands-on. For more serious conditions, nurses may provide referrals, case management or follow-up, depending on the situation.
In addition, OHNs help determine whether employee performance problems stem from medical issues, and they work with managers to create accommodations for workers with disabilities or chronic illness.
Monitoring and prevention
OHNs monitor employee health by gathering data about health and hazards, and using the data to prevent injury or illness. At Regions, for example, Brodehl and her staff are concerned with minimizing employee exposure to blood-borne pathogens and other infectious agents.
In a company where employees work with noisy equipment, OHNs would conduct annual hearing tests, work with managers to reduce noise levels and train workers in the use of hearing protection.
Health promotion and wellness activities such as blood pressure screenings are a growing part of occupational health nursing. In addition, nurses develop programs and activities that promote healthy behaviors like stress management, exercise, weight control and smoking cessation.
"Our department has also been very involved in pandemic planning. That's an employee health issue, not just for a hospital, but for any business," Brodehl says.
According to the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses, OHNs entering the field typically have a four-year degree and experience in community health, ambulatory care, critical care or emergency nursing. National certification is highly recommended.
Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.