OHN salaries grow as employers realize value

Survey shows importance of certification, education

Occupational health nurses have enjoyed an increase in salaries and benefits over the last five years, a survey conducted by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN) reveals. But as important as the salary and benefits increases are, what they represent is just as important, the president of the association says.

"In occupational health nursing, when you see the salary increases it reflects the scope of responsibility of occupational health nurses and it demonstrates the value that they bring to the work site," says Susan A. Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, president of the Atlanta-based AAOHN. She adds that "any time you have salary growth, considering all the effects on businesses today, it's good, and for nursing in particular."

Approximately 3,000 randomly selected AAOHN members responded to a survey sent out in October 2005, and their responses reveal the impact factors, such as certification levels, education, job title, years of experience, geographic region, and company size, have on salary and benefits.

Education, certification worthwhile

Randolph says the survey findings indicate the marketplace demand for occupational health nurses "who can provide expertise on the business implications of health issues."

The AAOHN survey revealed that nurses with occupational and environmental nursing certification earn significantly more than those without certification; also, education levels also correlated with earnings, with those with higher levels of education receiving greater compensation in salary and benefits.

"Certification seemed to make a big difference," says Randolph. "Those who are certified had higher salaries than those who are not. That speaks to the value of being certified — having national recognition in occupational and environmental health nursing — and it's a valued credential to have."

And although the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reports that nursing schools had to turn away 32,000 qualified applicants last year due to lack of capacity, Randolph says the supply of occupational health nurses so far is keeping up with the demand.

"I think for the most part, supply is keeping up with demand as more people look at occupational health as a career," she says. "There are a lot of settings that may employ occupational health nurses, besides hospitals and other health care facilities — non-traditional places — and I think people are looking at that.

"The thing is that at our nursing schools we try to have faculty who are prepared to teach that curriculum," Randolph, a clinical instructor of public health nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says, "and a lot of times schools that are turning people away are doing it because they don't have the faculty. If you don't have the faculty, you can't have the classes."

Not just work site first aid

First aid at the work site is still part of the occupational health nurse's practice; but the work injury or illness itself is just one small part of what the nurse focuses on. Bigger questions and concerns stemming from that one incident may include: What caused the injury? What preventive measures need to be put into place or adhered to? How is this employee going to be returned to work? What lifestyle factors of the employee contributed? What regulatory issues apply? Were other employees or the public exposed or injured?

"Occupational and environmental health nurses really have an increased focus on health and exposures, on safety, prevention, health promotion, rising health costs, wellness," says Randolph. "And everyone's looking at the dollar, so you have to consider how to save money and how to be smart about the dollars we do spend."

If, as in many cases, the occupational health nurse is the only occupational health and safety employee at a site, he or she will have even broader responsibilities.

"You really have to have good health skills and good business skills and validate what we do in terms of dollars and 'sense,'" Randolph pointed out. "There is that financial piece, and case management; there's a lot more interdisciplinary collaboration with all sorts of different partners within the [occupational health] disciplines and the community."

That variety is one aspect of the specialty that attracts nurses to occupational health, Randolph speculates.

Average salary up almost 4% per year

The estimated average salary for AAOHN members is $63,472 and the estimated median salary is $65,000, according to survey results, reflecting a growth of 3.9% annually since 2001. Randolph says attractive salaries and benefits are critical to attracting more nurses to occupational nursing.

On average, members who work in larger companies earn higher salaries, and members in the Northeast and mountain/Western regions earn higher wages than those in other parts of the country. Members who have responsibilities throughout the entire United States earn more than members who have responsibilities in only one or a few states.

The typical member has 75% of his or her health insurance program premium paid by the employer and receives 10 paid sick days, 15 paid vacation days, nine paid holidays, and five paid days for professional development per year. Seventy-five percent report receiving a 401(k) retirement plan.

The majority of members receive educational expenses (79%), employee assistance (77%), professional dues (77%), and free parking (76%) from their employers.

The three most common job titles for AAOHN members are OHN/clinician (24%), OHN/case manager (22%), and manager (19%). Members' primary job functions are either management and administration (31%) or primary care (27%). Slightly more than three out of five members (61%) supervise registered nurses. The typical member has been in his or her position six years, and more than two in five members (43%) have been in occupational and environmental health nursing more than 15 years. More than one in five members (22%) has at least a master's degree. Almost six in 10 members (59%) report having occupational and environmental health nursing certification.

The typical member works at a company that has 10,000 employees nationwide and has 1,200 employees who are eligible for their services. The median number of registered nurses at a location is two, and the median number in their company is four. Most AAOHN members responding to the survey are between 45 and 54 years old (46%).

The AAOHN salary survey report is available by calling AAOHN member services at (800) 241-8014, or on-line at http://www.aaohn.org/marketplace/comp_benefits.cfm.