OEHN Student Lisa Hunwardsen Conducts Survey on Impact of COVID-19 on Occupational Health Nurses - Midwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety Education and Research Center

OEHN Student Lisa Hunwardsen Conducts Survey on Impact of COVID-19 on Occupational Health Nurses

Working as an Occupational Health Nurse (OHN) during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging experience. 

With the assistance and support from the American Board for Occupational Health Nurses, Lisa Hunwardsen, a student in the Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing program, created a survey for Occupational Health Nurses to see how the OHN career has been impacted by the pandemic.

In September 2021, a survey was sent to approximately 5,500 Occupational Health Nurses (OHN) within the United States and Canada.  A second survey was sent to the OHN’s employers.  The two surveys demonstrate the value of OHNs within the workplace, their ability to adapt to the needs of the employer during a global pandemic, assisting with new workplace practices and creating policies and communications for employees to support safety and well-being in the workplace.  The two surveys additionally show the way the OHN’s work responsibilities and personal well-being have been impacted by the pandemic. The results of this survey have been shared in a research poster, and presentations at local, regional, and national events.

Lisa sat down with MCOHS web coordinator, Joy Archibald, to discuss this important project.

What made you interested in this field of study, and this project in particular?

I am a RN and a MPH student in the Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing (OHN) program. I have worked as an Occupational Health Nurse for 13 years in both a large hospital system and in a large manufacturing business. As an OHN, I am interested in teaching employees about disease prevention, workplace safety, and health and well-being.  I knew from my own work experience that being an OHN during the pandemic was exciting, stressful, and important work. I thought it would be great to survey the OHNs, ask them to share their experience during the pandemic and give them an opportunity to hear how others in the field felt.

Tell me more about this project.  How did it come to be, and what was involved? 

The American Board for Occupational Health Nursess (ABOHN) was looking for a student to write and deploy a survey for them to discover how COVID-19 has impacted the work of the OHN. I thought that the survey would be a great challenge and I was interested to hear the OHN’s responses.  I was awarded an Applied Research Grant from ABOHN to conduct the survey. (Read about the award here.)  With this support, I developed and administered a survey that was sent to Occupational Health Nurses in the United States and Canada, and their employers.

What are the key findings, and what impact could they have on the field of occupational health nursing? How could these results be used to protect the health and safety of nurses? 

The employer survey revealed that OHNs were very important to businesses during the pandemic. 70% of employers stated that they frequently contacted the OHN with questions or concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

The workload and responsibilities of OHNs changed dramatically during the pandemic.  OHNs worked long hours and were asked to be on-call 24/7 to answer workplace or worker questions.  They were also asked to switch from normal duties of medical surveillance, work-related injury and illness assessment, and immunization administration and education to return-to-work coordination after illness, education about infection control, and illness assessment, treatment, and triage. They assisted with developing new workplace policies and procedures for employees to return to work after illness and screened and educated employees who thought they had been exposed to COVID-19.

In addition to fatigue and burnout, violence is a significant risk for OHNs.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, 16.26% of nurses replied they felt threatened by workers in their workplace. 18.5% of nurses said there was an increase in violence in their workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. 45% of the OHNs who answered that their workplace had an increase in violence worked in companies with 2,500 or more employees. It is important to communicate these findings to employers, so measures are put in place to protect the safety of OHNs at the workplace.

What are the nextsteps?  How will the results of this survey be utilized?

I asked the OHNs what they would like to change now that they have experienced working during the COVID-19 pandemic. One nurse said she would like to be able to have a network of OHN contacts that she could consult with about questions or concerns, since many OHNs work alone.  I think it would be great to work with our professional organizations to develop a network for OHNs to communicate and share their needs and experiences.

Many OHNs asked for additional help with their job. They found that they were expected to do more work and to be the experts for their employer. I think that because the pandemic lasted longer than expected, no plan was ever put in place to help the OHNs with their additional work. OHNs expressed that they were tired of the pandemic and would like to get back to doing their normal OHN job duties. I think that when a pandemic plan is created or revised in a workplace, the company should include in the plan how they can assist the OHN with non-nursing duties to off-load some of the work and allow the nurses to concentrate on the health, safety, and well-being of the employees. Some OHNs expressed that a mutual call center to manage sick calls and calls regarding possible exposures to illness would be a helpful way to reduce their workload.

I have been able to share the results of this survey in many venues, including the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses annual conference, the NORA Symposium, the MCOHS Advisory Council and Executive Committee, School of Public Heath Research Day, a presentation to 3M Corporate Occupational Health, and the Association of Occupational Health Professionals conference.  I also hope to continue to examine the data to write a paper and submit it for publication.

Lisa has created a variety of resources to share the results of her survey: