Occupational Health: It's Not Just about Bandages and Aspirin Anymore

Susan Randolph, incoming president of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc., has a big job ahead of her. Concern about domestic acts of terrorism means occupational health nurses suddenly find themselves on the front line of homeland security efforts.

Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, a professor in the University North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Public Health's Occupational Health Nursing Program, assumes leadership of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc. (AAOHN) at a time when occupational health nursing is in transition. Gone are the days of sitting in an office, waiting to bandage cuts and sprains or offer aspirin.

Occupational health nurses are taking on roles in homeland security: AAOHN recently added all-hazard preparedness to its 2003 public policy platform, and dedicated a section of its Web site (www.aaohn.org) to combating bioterrorism in the workplace. They supervise workers' compensation and return-to-work programs, develop wellness and fitness courses, and administer automated external defibrillator (AED) programs.

Occupational Hazards: AAOHN is celebrating its 60th anniversary. What are some of the key events that helped shape the profession of occupational health nursing?

Susan Randolph: The Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, with its regulations and standards to promote a safe work environment, really focused attention on the importance of having healthy workers.

Sept. 11 and other terrorist acts put a different spin on the hazards people face at work. Smallpox, anthrax, biohazards: traditionally, workers haven't thought those threats would be in their workplaces.

OH: What are the greatest challenges facing occupational health nurses?

Randolph: Disaster preparedness/management is definitely a challenge facing the profession. Occupational health nurses have to be as prepared as they can be for just about any possibility.

Nurses have always been involved in disaster planning, and terrorist attacks are another form of disaster management. Recent events caused many of us to refocus our efforts and reestablish contacts with community partners like the Red Cross, public health departments and emergency services. It is also important to address issues like stress in the workplace through wellness and fitness programs that help employees stay as healthy physically and mentally as possible.

Another big challenge for occupational health nurses is demonstrating their value in the workplace, particularly in this economic climate, with all the cutbacks. We don't toot our own horns enough. We need to take credit for what we do. We need to articulate our expertise and show our value in the workplace.

OH: How is AAOHN working to help nurses meet those challenges?

Randolph: One way, as an organization, is to show the business community the value an occupational health nurse brings to the workplace in terms of reduced healthcare costs, reduced workers' compensation costs, improved health for employees and retention of employees. Healthy employees, working in a safe environment, are productive employees.

We provide members with tools they can use to develop quality wellness and fitness programs and occupational health programs. We offer standards of practice and core competencies, continuing education classes, position statements and all kinds of resources for members on our Web site.

OH: What are some of the highlights of the upcoming American Occupational Health Conference?

Randolph: OSHA Administrator John Henshaw is confirmed as a speaker at the joint session (held in conjunction with the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine) and that's very exciting, since OSHA plays such a major role in workplace safety and health. I think the exhibits, offering the latest products and services, will be a highlight for our members. The conference features visits to worksites like ConAgra (Athens, Ga.), continuing education courses and, of course, networking opportunities.

Most occupational nurses learn on the job, so networking allows them to compare notes with their colleagues what's similar and what's different and how they can incorporate new ideas into their occupational safety and health programs.

We try to be one step ahead, to anticipate the latest trends. With healthcare in particular, as practices change and new treatments or approaches become available, it is important to keep up. Lifelong learning is key and that's where continuing education whether it's face-to-face in a class or seminar, Web-based, or an article in the journal comes into play.

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