Health Promotion Holds Opportunity for OHNs

With an aging population and changes in retirement benefits causing employees to work longer, employers will need to assess the impact of chronic diseases on their work force and employ better disease prevention and management programs, says the president of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN).

Susan Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, a clinical instructor in the Occupational Health Nursing Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Occupational Hazards that while workplace injuries and illnesses are decreasing, lifestyle-related illnesses are having a major impact on healthcare costs. She noted disturbing data about growing obesity in children, pointing out that they are likely to bring those eating habits into adulthood and that they will be the "workers of tomorrow."

She said occupational health nurses (OHNs) can use their relationships with employees and understanding of the workplace to help devise interventions that will make jobs safer. In addition, she said OHNs can help with a variety of disease prevention and management activities such as health education, making sure employees take prescribed medications and health promotion activities such as smoking cessation and weight management.

Randolph said while nursing education is patient-based, occupational health nurses need to educated themselves about the business aspects of occupational health. They must be able to speak with managers in business terms they understand and help them make informed decisions about health care investments. She said executives must understand not just the return-on-investment from new machinery, but also from investments made to sustain a healthy work force. "If you are not healthy, how productive are you going to be at work?" she noted. "What is the quality of the product or service that is being provided?"

Survey Data

In a recent study conducted for AAOHN, only half the companies surveyed said they knew their full costs stemming from employee health- and disability-related issues. The study involved interviews with more than 100 human resource executives, medical directors and EHS professionals in a variety of industries.

Randolph said these costs include not only workers' compensation but also the more general health care costs companies incur. She said it is likely the other companies have some data on costs, "but they may not know how some of those costs could be reduced or managed better through case management, disease management." The study found that the companies that did have information available to assess the true costs of employee health issues tended to be the most active in offering value-focused employee health activities such as employee health and wellness programs.

The study also found that 72 percent of the executives believed keeping employees healthy is crucial to business success. And of those respondents who employed OHNs, nearly 60 percent described them as "invaluable." They cited the top four benefits of having OHNs as: reduced workers' compensation, better bottom line due to health and safety programs, reduced absenteeism and reduced incidence of injuries/fatalities.

Randolph said the survey results should prove "a real asset" in communicating the value of employee health programs and occupational health nurses. She said they reinforce AAOHN's view that "having someone looking after the health and safety of employees is essential."

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