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Keeping it safe at work

The role of the occupational nurse has moved from mainly clinical duties to involve more on-the-job training and risk management. By Mardi Chapman

Occupational health nurses might have to wear high-visibility vests on the job but their size and prominence as a nursing speciality is fast-diminishing.

Specialist occupational health nurses were the mainstay of occupational health from the late 1970s to the ’90s, but in recent years their numbers have declined and the nurses’ role has taken on a more generalist Occupational Health and Safety function.

The specialty’s professional body, the Australian College of Occupational Health Nurses (ACOHN) effectively disappeared when it was absorbed into the Australian and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM) in 2009.

And their numbers are so small they don’t even rate a specific mention in the latest Nursing and Midwifery Workforce report, although they are probably represented in the 0.4 per cent of nurses employed in commercial and business settings.

As workplaces have changed, so too has the traditional role of the occupational health nurse, says Sally Kane, chair of the Victorian branch of ANZSOM. Kane has worked as an occupational health nurse for more than 25 years and says the traditional focus on treatment-orientated care has largely gone.

“As industry has changed, so has our role. It’s rarely a clinical environment now. We would argue that we’ve expanded our scope of knowledge and practice to reflect what the job market wants.”

That scope of practice can also include responsibilities for safety and risk management, environmental health, and even security depending on the employer or industry.

Like many other occupational health nurses, Kane found herself working in the role before she had any specific training. Later, she was in the first cohort of students through a postgraduate diploma in occupational health at the Lincoln Institute of Health Sciences in the early 1980s before it merged with La Trobe University.

“Nurses are very resourceful and willing to have a go. However, we were also very keen to get qualifications and official recognition for the work we were doing,” she says.

For many occupational health nurses particularly those who specialise in sectors such as mining, industry specific courses are often the way to up-skill.



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