Civilian occ-health nurses protect those who serve

Variety, exotic locales draw nurses into military

Reducing lost workdays, advising on repetitive motion injuries; some aspects of occupational health nursing are universal. But when the repetitive motion injury affects a Navy sailor getting ready to deploy, or the worker losing work days is a Marine in Bahrain, the work can get interesting.

The U.S. Navy's occupational health nursing program began in 1985, and employs mostly civilian nurses who come to the Navy as seasoned nurses.

Lori O'Berry, senior occupational health nurse consultant at the Navy Environmental Health Center (NEHC) in Portsmouth, VA, spent about 15 years as an orthopedic, neurosurgical, and emergency medicine nurse before she was hired by the Navy. About 15 years later, she says the job has provided her with experiences not always found in civilian workplaces.

"My first job as an occupational health nurse was at [the U.S. Naval Base at] Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," she says.

Working side by side with military nurses

The Navy occupational health nursing program is made up of about 120 nurses, all of whom are civilians. Though active duty Navy nurses work collaboratively with the civilian occupational health nurses, the Navy has no active duty occ-health nurses, she says.

Occ-health nurses apply for Navy employment through the Navy civilian human resources web site (http://chart.donhr.navy.mil). The on-line application is followed by a pre-placement exam and an interview.

"A lot of them are experienced nurses when they come in, but maybe they don't come into the field already in the [occupational health] specialty," she explains. "They may have years of clinical experience."

Nurses who want to join the occupational health nurse program must already have occupational health nurse education, but continuing education opportunities abound. The 45th Navy Occupational Health and Preventive Medicine Conference, scheduled for March 2006, provides a week of conferences and continuing education tuition-free for Navy occ-health nurses. Space allowing, non-Navy civilian occ-health nurses are allowed to register for the conference, as well (www-nehc.med.navy.mil/conference06). The conference focuses on military medical readiness, deployment health, and technology advances.

Covering the globe

Navy occupational health nurses are stationed throughout the world to care for Navy and Marine personnel, but do not deploy. But O'Berry says the role of Navy occ-health nurses is critical to the pre- and post-deployment process, whether it's making sure deployed service members are prepared for their missions or monitoring the safety and health of reservists who backfill the positions left behind by deployed personnel.

"The Navy covers the globe, and so does occupational health," she says. "One of our jobs is to keep the Navy work force, including active duty, civilian, and contract workers, healthy, and to help the Navy provide a safe and healthful workplace for its employees."

While some of the patient contacts that a Navy occ-health nurses have are the same as those seen in any other workplace, Berry says the variety of encounters she has makes the job interesting.

"When there's an occupational health clinic in a shipyard, which is heavy industry, you will have patient contacts that you'd see in heavy industry. But there are also administrative workers, so you have a wide range of patient contacts, whereas [contacts seen in a civilian setting] may tend to be more focused," she explains.

That variety, coupled with the opportunity for international placement, makes the job appealing to the nurses in the Navy occupational health program. "You meet lot of people, you get to see a lot, and that's part of the fun of occupational health nursing — being able to go to a work site and see what people do, then going back to the clinic and making informed decisions about the employees' health and safety," she relates.

During periods of conflict, the nurses' role changes a little, Berry says, as they help get personnel ready to be deployed overseas and reservists ready to take over at home.

"Now that we're in a peacekeeping role in Iraq, there are more civilians being deployed along with the active duty personnel, so we have had to change our practice to get civilians ready to deploy with the active duty personnel."