What is an Occupational and Environmental Health Nurse - Midwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety Education and Research Center

What is an Occupational and Environmental Health Nurse

Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing is the specialty practice that provides health and safety services and programs to employee populations, their families and communities.

The practice of occupational and environmental health nursing focuses on health promotion, illness and injury prevention, and the protection of individuals from occupational and environmental hazards. The underlying knowledge base is multidisciplinary and includes the sciences of nursing, medicine, public health (e.g., epidemiology and environmental health) and occupational health (e.g., toxicology, safety, industrial hygiene and ergonomics). It also incorporates social and behavioral sciences and principles of management and health care administration. Occupational and environmental health nurses are advocates for employees and community groups, fostering equitable and quality health care services and safe and healthy environments in which others work and live.

Occupational and environmental health nurses act as members of a multidisciplinary team that includes employees, employers, other health and safety professionals, and professionals from fields with related expertise such as employee benefits, human resources, law, and finance. Nurses collaborate with team members to identify health and safety needs; prioritize interventions; develop and implement interventions and programs; and evaluate care and service delivery and program impact.

While the scope of any individual nurse’s practice will vary, the OEHN’s job responsibilities may include, but are not limited to:

  • Clinical and primary health care of occupational and non-occupational injuries and illnesses
  • Case management of occupational and non-occupational injuries and illnesses
  • Health hazard assessment and surveillance of employee populations, workplaces and community groups
  • Investigation, monitoring and analysis of injury and illness episodes and trends
  • Compliance with laws, regulations and standards governing health and safety for employees and the environment
  • Management of occupational and environmental health services
  • Health promotion and disease prevention strategies
  • Counseling, health education and training programs
  • Research related to occupational and environmental health

The role of an occupational and environmental health nurse varies with the level of their educational preparation, work experience, job position, and the area’s market demand. Generally, nurses without a master’s degree perform more clinical or technical direct care functions or services and may be required to have professional certification (Certified Occupational Health Nurse, administered by the American Board of Occupational Health Nurses) or clinical practice experience prior to entering the field.

The masters-prepared occupational health nurse typically functions in a managerial role as part of an interdisciplinary team that may cross several departments (e.g., health, human resources, and legal services) to provide consultation to all levels of the company. Although some masters-prepared OEHN’s provide direct care to employees, they typically become more involved in department and program management, policy setting, regulatory compliance, program marketing or client relations.

Occupational and environmental health nurses prepared at the doctoral level primarily work in academic settings. They prepare the next generation of occupational and environmental health nurses through teaching classes and contribute to the development of new knowledge in the field by conducting research.

The field of Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing (OEHN) is constantly evolving to meet the health and safety needs of the nation’s workforce. Current trends shaping occupational and environmental health include an ever increasing number of workplace hazards (including chemical, physical, psychosocial, and biological agents), deregulation of occupational and environmental policies, escalating health care costs, an increased prevalence of chronic disease and injury in an aging workforce, public demands for health care reform, environmental protection and sustainability, and an increasing emphasis on global health. These factors have all converged into a greater need than ever for employers to protect and promote the well-being of workers and to minimize any adverse environmental consequences from the work environment. Occupational and environmental health nurses are uniquely prepared to address these concerns.