Occupational Health: Core Areas of Knowledge and Competence, Part 1

It is not possible to describe a highly complex and dynamic process such as occupational health nursing simply in terms of core activities or tasks. Occupational Health Nurse (OHA) are constantly learning new skills, adapting current practices to meet new needs and developing new approaches to solving problems and therefore their practice is not static but is constantly improving based upon a core range of skills.

However, within this limitation it is possible to describe those core areas of knowledge and competence that occupational health nurses use. The following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to give an indication of the wide range of competencies that occupational health nurses demonstrate in practice.

The Clinician

Primary prevention

The OHA is skilled in primary prevention of injury or disease. The nurse may identify the need for, assess and plan interventions to, for example modify working environments, systems of work or change working practices in order to reduce the risk of hazardous exposure. Occupational health nurses are skilled in considering factors, such as human behavior and habits in relation to actual working practices. The nurse can also collaborate in the identification, conception and correction of work factors, choice of individual protective equipment, prevention of industrial injuries and diseases, as well as providing advice in matters concerning protection of the environment. Because of the occupational health nurses close association with the workers, and knowledge and experience in the working environment, they are in a good position to identify early changes in working practices, identify workers concerns over health and safety, and by presenting these to management in an independent objective manner can be the catalyst for changes in the workplace that lead to primary prevention.

Emergency care

The OHA is a Registered Nurse with a great deal of clinical experience and expertise in dealing with sick or injured people. The nurse may, where such duties form part of their job, provide initial emergency care of workers injured at work prior to transfer of the injured worker to hospital or the arrival of the emergency services. In many instances, where hazardous conditions exist at work, or where the workplace is far removed from other health care facilities, this role will form a major part of an occupational health nurse’s job. Occupational health nurses employed in mines, on oil rigs, in the desert regions or in areas where the health care systems are not yet fully developed will be familiar with a wide range of emergency care techniques and may have developed additional skills in order to fulfill this role. For others, who are working in situations where the emergency services are on hand, they may simply provide an additional level of support beyond that provided by the industrial first aider.

Nursing diagnosis

Occupational health nurses are skilled in assessing client’s health care needs, establish a nursing diagnosis and formulating appropriate nursing care plans, in conjunction with the patient or client groups, to meet those needs. Nurses can then implement and evaluate nursing interventions designed to achieve the care objectives. The nurse has a prominent role in assessing the needs of individuals and groups, and has the ability to analyze, interpret, plan and implement strategies to achieve specific goals. By using the nursing process the nurse contributes to workplace health management and by so doing helps to improve the health of the working population at the shop floor level. Nursing diagnosis is a holistic concept that does not focus solely on the treatment of a specific disease, but rather considers the whole person and their health care needs in the broadest context. It is a health based model rather than a disease based model and nurses have the skills to apply this approach with the working populations they serve.

General Health advice and health assessment

The OHA will be able to give advice on a wide range of health issues, and particularly on their relationship to working ability, health and safety at work or where modifications to the job or working environment can be made to take account of the changing health status of employees.

In many respects employers are not solely concerned with only those conditions that are directly caused by work, but do want their occupational health staff to help address any health related problems that may arise that might influence the employees attendance or performance at work, and many employees appreciate this level of help being provided to them at the workplace because it is so convenient for them. In particular the development of health care services to men at work, younger populations and those from ethnic groups can be most effective in reaching these sometimes difficult to reach populations.

Research and the use of evidence based practice

In addition to utilizing information and knowledge produced by research in various fields to support activities that relate to the occupational health component of their role, occupational health nurses will also utilize fully research information available from many fields to help support the general health of the working population.

Specialist

Occupational health policy, and practice development, implementation and evaluation

The specialist occupational health nurse may be involved, with senior management in the company, in developing the workplace health policy and strategy including aspects of occupational health, workplace health promotion and environmental health management. The OH nurse is in a good position to advise management on the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of workplace health management strategies and to participate fully in each of these stages. Possibility to perform that role will depend upon level of nurse education, skills and experience.

Occupational health assessment

OHA’s can play an essential role in health assessment for fitness to work, pre-employment or pre-placement examinations, periodic health examinations and individual health assessments for lifestyle risk factors.

Collaboration with occupational physician may be necessary in many instances, depending upon exiting legislation and accepted practice. The nurse can also play an important role in the workplace where informal requests for information, advice on health care matters and health related problems come to light. The nurse is able to observe the individual or group of workers in relation to exposure to a particular hazard and initiate appropriate targeted health assessment where necessary. These activities are often, but not exclusively, undertaken in conjunction with the medical adviser so that where problems are identified a safe system for onward referral exists.

Health surveillance

Where workers are exposed to a degree of residual risk of exposure and health surveillance is required by law the OHA will be involved in undertaking routine health surveillance procedures, periodic health assessment and in evaluating the results from such screening processes. The nurse will need a high degree of clinical skill when undertaking health surveillance and maintain a high degree of alertness to any abnormal findings. Early referral to an occupational health physician or other appropriate specialist will be the responsibility of the occupational health nurse where any abnormality is detected. The nurse will be involved in supporting the worker throughout any further examination or investigation, and may help to monitor their health on return to work. Once alerted to the possibility of an adverse health effect the occupational health nurse is in a good position to co-ordinate efforts to re-evaluate working practices in order to help protect others who may be similarly affected.

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Occupational Health: Core Areas of Knowledge and Competence, Part 2

HA’s can contribute by helping managers to manage sickness absence more effectively. The nurse may be involved in helping to train line managers and supervisors in how to best use the OH service, in how to refer staff, what type of information will be required, what to expect from occupational health. By developing transparent referral procedures, ensuring that medical confidentiality is maintained and that the workers’ rights are respected the OHA can do much to ensure that employees referred for assessment due to sickness absence are comfortable with the process.

OH nurses, with their close relationship with workers, knowledge of the working environment and trends in ill-health in the company are often in a good position to advise management on preventing sickness absence. In my experience referral to General Practitioners have a limited use for work related issues, and gain best results by as well as keeping the GP aware, referring to a specialist occupational physician.

Planned rehabilitation strategies, can help to ensure safe return to work for employees who have been absent from work due to ill-health or injury. The nurse is often the key person in the rehabilitation programme who will, with the manager and individual employee, complete a risk assessment, devise the rehabilitation programme, monitor progress and communicate with the individual, the OH physician and the line manager. Nurses have also become involved in introducing proactive rehabilitation strategies that aim to detect early changes in health before such conditions result in absence from work. Improving and sustaining working ability benefits many groups, the individual, the organization and society, as costly absence and other health care costs are avoided.

In many cases the OH nurse has to work within the organization as the clients advocate in order ensuring that managers appreciate fully the value of improving the health of the workforce. OH nurses have the skills necessary to undertake this work and may develop areas of special interest.

The occupational health nurse may develop pro-active strategies to help the workforce maintain or restore their work ability. New workers, older workers, women returning to work following pregnancy or workers who have been unemployed for a prolonged period of time may all benefit from health advice or a planned programme of work hardening exercises to help maintain or restore their work ability even before any health problems arise. Increasingly the problems faced by industry are of a psychosocial nature and these can be even more complex and costly to deal with. OH nurses, working at the company level, are in a good position to give advice to management on strategies that can be adopted to improve the psycho-social health and wellbeing of workers.

Health and safety

The OHA can have a role to play in developing health and safety strategies. Where large, or high risk, organizations have their own in-house health and safety specialists the OHA can work closely with these specialists to ensure that the nurses expertise in health, risk assessment, health surveillance and environmental health management is fully utilized into the health and safety strategy. Occupational health nurses are trained in health and safety legislation, risk management and the control of workplace health hazards and can therefore make a useful contribution to the overall management of health and safety at work, with particular emphasis on ‘health’ risk assessment.

Hazard identification

The nurse often has close contact with the workers and is aware of changes to the working environment. Because of the nurses expertise in the effects of work on health they are in a good position to be involved in hazard identification. Hazards may arise due to new processes or working practices or may arise out of informal changes to existing processes and working practices that the nurse can readily identify and assess the likely risk from. This activity requires and pre-supposed regular and frequent work place visits by the occupational health nurse to maintain an up to date knowledge and awareness of working processes and practices.

Risk assessment

Legislation in Europe is increasingly being driven by a risk management approach. OHA’s are trained in risk assessment and risk management strategies and, depending upon their level of expertise and the level of complexity involved in the risk assessment, the nurse can undertake risk assessments or contribute towards the risk assessment working closely with other specialists.

Advice on control strategies

Having been involved in the hazard identification and risk assessment the occupational health nurse can, within the limits of their education and training, provide advice and information on appropriate control strategies, including health surveillance, risk communication, monitoring and on the evaluation of control strategies.

Research and the use of evidence based practice

Specialist OHA’s utilize research findings from a wide range of disciplines, including nursing, toxicology, psychology, environmental health and public health in their daily practice. The principal requirement for an occupational health nurse in practice is that they have the skills to read and critically assess research findings from these different disciplines and to be able to incorporate the findings into evidence based approach to their practice. Research in nursing is already well established and there is a small, but growing, body of evidence being created by occupational health nursing researchers who investigate occupational health nursing practices. OHA’s should ensure that they have access to and the skills necessary to base their practice on the best available evidence. At the company level occupational health nurses may be involved in producing management reports on for example sickness absence trends, accident statistics, assessment of health promotion needs and in evaluating the delivery of services, the effectiveness of occupational health interventions. Research skills and the ability to transfer knowledge and information from published research to practice is an important aspect of the role.

Ethics

OHA’s, along with other health, environment and safety professionals in the workplace health team, are in a privileged position in society. They have access to personal and medical information relating to employees in the company that would not be available to any other group. Society has imposed, by law, additional responsibilities on clinical professionals to protect and safeguard the interest of patients. The ethical standards for each discipline are set and enforced by each of the professional bodies. Breaches of these codes of conduct can result in the professional being removed from the register and prevented for practicing. Nurses have a long and well-respected tradition in society of upholding the trust placed in them by patients. This level of trust in the occupational health nurse’s professional integrity means that employees feel that they can be open, honest and share information with the nurse in the confidence that the information will not be used for other purposes. This allows the nurse to practice much more effectively than would ever be possible if that trust was not there. The protection of personal information enables a trusted relationship between employees and the nurse to be developed and facilitates optimum working relationships and partnership. The International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) has published useful guidance on ethics for occupational health professionals’. This guidance is summarized below “Occupational Health Practice must be performed according to the highest professional standards and ethical principles. Occupational health professionals must serve the health and social wellbeing of the workers, individually and collectively. They also contribute to environmental and community health the obligations of occupational health professionals include protecting the life and the health of the worker, respecting human dignity and promoting the highest ethical principles in occupational health policies and programs. Integrity in professional conduct, impartiality and the protection of confidentiality of health data and the privacy of workers are part of these obligations. Occupational health professionals are experts who must enjoy full professional independence in the execution of their functions. They must acquire and maintain the competence necessary for their duties and require conditions which allow them to carry out their tasks according to good practice and professional ethics.”

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