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.