Medicine

How to Become an Occupational Health Nurse

How to Become an Occupational Health Nurse
Some occupational nurses earn more than $125,000 annually. Image from Unsplash
Suzanne Wentley profile
Suzanne Wentley December 13, 2019

Workplace injuries and illnesses inflict substantial harm on the economy and, more importantly, disrupt the lives of workers and their families. As an occupational health nurse, you'll work to prevent these hardships and to minimize the impact of those that do occur.

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Every workplace—be it a construction site, retail center, chemical laboratory, or even an office setting—poses a risk of accident and injury to employees. When a work environment experiences frequent-enough issues to require on-site medical care, an occupational health nurse can fit the bill. This healthcare professional helps workers stay safe from job hazards, get the care needed when accidents arise, and develop plans and practices to prevent accidents and injuries.

Given the trends away from heavy manufacturing and toward greater safety awareness, you might think that workplaces would be growing safer and that the need for occupational health professionals would be on the wane. In fact, the opposite is true. The job market for occupational health and safety specialtists, which include occupational health nurses, is projected to grow by 6 percent from 2018 to 2028.

Some occupational nurses work in a clinic or hospital setting, while others are employed as consultants for corporations. It’s a potentially lucrative career, depending on your location, education, and experience. Thinking about becoming an occupational health nurse? In this article, we’ll answer some questions you probably have, including:

  • What is an occupational health nurse?
  • Career outlook for occupational health nurses
  • Education needed to become an occupational health nurse
  • Resources for becoming an occupational health nurse

What is an occupational health nurse?

Occupational health nurses are tasked with assessing environmental health risks and preventing work-related injuries, as well as caring for those who have sustained an injury on the job.

Key responsibilities include:

  • Leading educational sessions for employee health promotion and best practices
  • Recommending procedural changes for improved workplace safety
  • Ensuring workplaces follow Occupational Safety and Health Act standards
  • Investigating causes of accidents and injuries
  • Conducting drug and alcohol tests, as well as reviewing medical files of workers
  • Administering, or even prescribing, medication
  • Overseeing physical therapy treatments

To be successful in this role, all occupational health nurses should have:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • The ability to work with many different personalities
  • A compassionate nature
  • Strong critical-thinking skills (to analyze environments for potential risk factors)
  • Teaching ability
  • Good problem-solving skills
  • Excellent organization (to document injury and illness)

Career outlook for occupational health nurses

Despite best efforts to maintain health and well-being in the workplace, accidents happen. Human resources executives will always require assistance from occupational health nurses to develop safety programs. By implementing methods to promote health and wellness and prevent injuries, you will save businesses and insurance companies money.

How much do occupational nurses make?

Occupational nurses earn a mean annual income of $82,070; their median income is $75,000. This disparity suggests that occupational nursing jobs that pay well pay really well, and indeed, data show that 6 percent of occupational nurses earn $125,000 or more annually.

By way of comparison, registered nurses in aggregate earn an average of $71,730 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Occupational health nurse specialties

Of the many nursing specialties, occupational health nursing is within the subset that allows practitioners to work in a non-hospital environment. Extra training and certifications can further broaden workplace options for occupational health nurses.

Specializations in this field include:

  • Certified Occupational Health Nurse-Specialist: These nurses provide more than direct care. They focus on “management, education, consultation, and case management” according to the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN). The requirements—completing 3,000 hours of occupational health nursing over five years—are the same as those for becoming a plain old certified occupational health nurse.
  • Certified Occupational Health Nurse Case Manager: This certification focuses exclusively on case management. Case managers must be RNs and have general or specialist certification. They must also complete a case-management-specific program.
  • Occupational Health Nurse Practitioner: Nurse practitioners enjoy full-practice authority in many states, meaning that they can prescribe medications, order tests, and do most everything short of performing surgery. You’ll need a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to become an NP. The AAOHN offers training sessions for perspective NPs.

Education needed to become an occupational health nurse

To work as an occupational health nurse, you must be a registered nurse, which requires at minimum an associate’s degree in nursing. Note that more employers than ever are requiring a bachelor’s degree in nursing from prospective RNs. Expect to spend two years of full-time study earning an associate’s degree or four years to earn a bachelor’s.

According to the AAOHN, aspiring occupational health nurses should have academic (and, if possible, hands-on) experience in:

  • Community health
  • Ambulatory care
  • Critical care
  • Emergency nursing

After completing your degree, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination, which is administered by individual state boards. Each state has different eligibility requirements to take the exam. Review your state requirements before applying for the license.

Once licensed, you will be able to practice as a nurse. You will likely not find work in occupational health straight out of school, as most employers in the field look for candidates with some professional experience. As you acquire that experience, consider taking specific courses in occupational health at the graduate level, or, better still, earning one of the certifications described above.

Earning a master’s degree will qualify you for more responsibility and higher-paying jobs. A master’s typically takes two years to earn full-time, three to four years on a part-time basis.

Some MSN programs offer specializations in occupational health. These include:

In these programs, you’ll learn strategies to prevent injuries on the job, as well as ways to make connections among public health, nursing, and business. Your coursework will cover:

  • Biostatistics
  • Health planning and promotion
  • Safety management
  • Industrial hygiene
  • Epidemiology
  • Physiology and pathophysiology
  • Research and evidence-based practice
  • Occupational safety engineering
  • Occupational and environmental diseases and injuries

Practical experience is an essential part of these programs. Consider finding a mentor who can help you develop the skills you need for this rewarding career.

Resources for becoming an occupational health nurse

  • Looking for money to pay for school? The AAOHN has funding opportunities for occupational health nurses.
  • Prospective occupational health nurses can also access resources for continuing education and professional support through the ABOHN website.

A few organizations and agencies provide essential information about public health and occupational medicine. Among them:

  • The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine organizes conferences offering educational and professional opportunities, as well as continuing education credits that can be taken in person or online.
  • The National Environmental Health Association oversees the Environmental Public Health Tracking Network, which utilizes data from American public health departments that can be used to understand risks and health trends better.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers grants and training in public health and occupational safety.

Workplace injuries and illnesses cost the US economy a staggering $250 billion each year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. More than 5,000 people lose their lives in workplace accidents each year, and another 8.5 million sustain injuries. As an occupational health professional, you’ll help workers avoid accidents and illnesses on the job. In the process, you’ll make life better for them, their families, their employers, and their communities.

If these issues fascinate you, a career as an occupational health nurse may be the right fit. You might also want to consider earning a Master of Public Health, which can train you for numerous other careers focused on similar challenges.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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