Originally published June 21, 2022 in OH&S Occupational Health & Safety.
By Tessa Stanaland | Tuesday, June 21, 2022
Occupational health nurses are the key to promoting whole health and safety on worksites.
Occupational health care is in the midst of a transformation. Safety will always be the leading pillar of occupational health, but today a greater focus is being cast on holistic health and wellness.
Since the Occupational Health and Safety Administration was established in 1970, it has introduced critically important programs and regulations that have greatly decreased the annual number of on-the-job fatalities and injuries. In 1973, the incident rate of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses was 11 per 100 full-time equivalent workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2018, that rate had fallen to just 2.8 per 100 full-time equivalent workers.
The trend indicates that workplace injuries are occurring less frequently, but organizations should not assume they can shift to a more hands off approach when it comes to the health of their employees. Businesses must keep pace with the changing nature of occupational health and address workers’ whole health beyond physical safety.
While known for treating injuries and mitigating health care costs and lost time, occupational health nurses have taken on greater responsibility over the last few years. More than just worker’s compensation case managers, they are strategic partners for businesses when it comes to providing holistic, proactive health care that addresses both safety and total health and well-being.
Changing Role of Occupational Health Nurses
Occupational health nurses have long helped organizations reduce on-the-job injury by assessing worksites for safety and providing immediate care when incidents occur. As the occupational health care landscape has shifted, occupational health nurses have integrated further into the worksite to become more personal, proactive health care providers. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on the immense value occupational health nurses bring outside of injury care and case management.
When the pandemic emerged, occupational health nurses were quick to develop programs to ensure businesses could remain open – determining policies for temperature checks and testing, creating signage to communicate COVID-19 safety protocols, establishing procedures for effectively cleaning equipment and shared spaces. Occupational health nurses provided critical medical expertise needed to design programs that would keep employees safe and working while the virus spread.
The pandemic solidified occupational health nurses as an integral part of maintaining worksite functions and providing preventive care. That said, even before the pandemic, the role of occupational health nurses had been transitioning away from an emphasis on reactive injury care to a new emphasis on proactive, whole health care. While injury care and emergency response are still primary functions of the role, occupational health nurses today are managing so much more.
Supporting Workforce Whole Health and Wellness
After rates of burnout skyrocketed during the pandemic, employees are putting greater emphasis on their own physical and mental well-being. That’s why occupational health care is shifting to a holistic approach that addresses workers’ wellness on and off the job. Occupational health nurses are making sure employees stay at their healthiest, in turn reducing health care costs and time away from work, through:
- Reactive Injury Care
Occupational health nurses are the front line when it comes to worksite injuries and incidents. But on top of that, they’ll intervene and provide early conservative treatment whenever employees are feeling pain, helping improve their symptoms early rather than allowing concerns to fester. If an employee tweaks their back, occupational health nurses can instruct them to ice the problem spot, allowing the injury to resolve itself and getting workers back on the job quickly. Without access to an occupational health nurse, that employee would either ignore the injury entirely and allow it to worsen or make a trip to the hospital, get imaging done and potentially get a prescription for pain medication. From there, they might miss a week of work or more. When occupational health nurses are on the jobsite, employees can get medical advice and care from a trusted professional without leaving the work site at all.
- Proactive Whole Health Care
Onsite occupational health nurses are able to build relationships with employees and take on the role of personal nurse for each worker. While OSHA does require that workers regularly undergo physicals and hearing, vision and motor function tests, occupational health nurses take those assessments one step further. If a worker’s blood pressure has been steadily increasing each year, for example, a nurse will schedule them a doctor’s appointment for further hypertension screening. Occupational health nurses can spot underlying health concerns and give workers the push they need to take care of their health – leading to early detection of chronic conditions and less time away from work. By having a constant presence at the worksite, occupational health nurses build trust with employees and become health consultants, directing them to the right specialists for concerns or providing advice on how to approach diagnoses. This type of personal and proactive care from occupational health nurses helps create a culture of health and safety.
- Population Health Care
Occupational health nurses can also help businesses address workforce population health by developing company-wide initiatives. Through routine screenings and onsite observations, nurses can determine if a workforce has high levels of chronic conditions or increased risk of developing conditions like hypertension or obesity. They can then implement educational programs to help the entire workforce improve its health, from weight programs that promote exercise and healthy eating habits to mental health programs that promote mindfulness and stress reduction. An onsite occupational health nurse uniquely understands the common concerns affecting the majority of a specific workforce and can help businesses develop programs tailored to their health needs. This dedicated, personalized care is key to ensuring employees feel cared for by their employer and stay at their healthiest, allowing for more productive and motivated workers.
Staying On Top of the Occupational Health Landscape
Health and safety are constantly evolving. Organizations are charged with staying on top of the health care needs of their workforce, otherwise, it could mean higher rates of injury, absenteeism and turnover. On-the-ground support from occupational health nurses is key to not only implementing and complying with safety standards but to maintaining a healthy workforce. Today’s occupational health nurses wear many hats. From case manager to COVID-19 coordinator to personal nurse, occupational health nurses are no longer a should-have for businesses. They are a must-have strategic partner.