Certification reflects professional mastery

OHN credential validates knowledge, expertise

By Sharon D. Kemerer, RN, MSN, COHN-S
Executive Director
American Board for Occupational Health Nurses
Hinsdale, IL

The eve of a new millennium offers an ideal opportunity to identify trends and directions in our professional careers.

The definition of the occupational health nurse’s (OHN’s) role has evolved over time with advances and changes in the health care delivery system and dynamic relationships with the client population of employees. Increasing independence and accountability for professional actions and judgements have been a hallmark of that evolutionary process.

As that autonomy has increased, so has the need for valid credentialing of OHNs to ensure high-quality practice. The impact of managed care is undeniable, with networks often demanding additional credentials to assure competence and command positions of authority.

Of course, as a minimum, OHNs should hold licensure as registered nurses (RNs) within their states of practice. Unlike licensure, which assures the public of safe practice at a beginning level and is required for basic practice, certification in occupational health nursing reflects specialty practice and knowledge at a mastery level. It provides an outward sign by an independent body that the professional is an authority in the specialty of occupational health nursing.

When asked about the effect certification has had on their careers, recently certified OHNs report many advantages to achieving COHN or COHN-S status, including:

    • increased responsibility in their positions;
    • pay increases and promotions;
    • strong management support for continuing education;
    • increased decision-making power;
    • programs that are more cost-effective and compliant with regulations.

Becoming certified is a process. It includes achieving eligibility requirements, completing an application, performing a self-evaluation of skills and strengths, and following a program of study dictated by individual needs. The final step is successfully passing the national examination, but it is the process that benefits any professional who attempts certification.

The American Board for Occupational Health Nurses (ABOHN) is the sole certifying body for occupational health nurses in the United States. It was established in 1972 following the recommendations of a multidisciplinary committee to provide a certification program for occupational health nurses.

Two types of certification offered

ABOHN’s program includes two basic certification types: the Certified Occupational Health Nurse (COHN) and the Certified Occupational Health Nurse Specialist (COHN-S). Once achieved, certification is maintained by demonstrating continuing education in the area of occupational health and by continued professional practice. More than 9,200 nurses have been certified by ABOHN since its founding, with more than 6,600 nurses holding active certification at the time of this publication.

Both the COHN and COHN-S certifications require that nurses work in occupational health for at least 2½ years, hold an active RN license, and have attended at least 75 contact hours of continuing education in the specialty area. In addition, the COHN-S certification requires a baccalaureate or higher degree as educational preparation.

Based on research into the roles fulfilled by OHNs, the COHN examination is focused heavily in direct care issues (approximately 45% of the test) and also reflects the OHN’s role as coordinator and advisor. The COHN-S examination reflects the OHN’s role in direct care, management, education, and consultation. Both examinations contain 200 questions.

Because of the strong role certified OHNs play in case management of employee health issues, ABOHN is developing a new case management (CM) certification. The first examination will be administered in fall 1999, and will be available only to nurses holding COHN or COHN-S status.

Certification examinations are administered twice a year, in the spring and fall, at more than 35 sites around the country. Application deadlines are Jan. 31 and July 31 of each year, and the application fee is $50. Once a candidate’s application has been accepted, an examination fee of $275 is required.

Most candidates report preparing for their examination over a three-month period by using a variety of study methods. Review courses, offered by independent consultants and by many universities, offer overview material that can help direct individual study. Studying in a group, especially with other OHNs who work in varied settings, helps broaden work experience.

Certification is a voluntary mechanism for validating a professional’s knowledge and expertise in a specialty. The occupational health nurse who is certified has made a commitment to the specialty and to continued professional growth and development by successfully completing eligibility and examination requirements. Certification is an excellent tool to take into the next millennium and beyond.

[Editor’s note: For more information on certification as an occupational health nurse, contact: American Board for Occupational Health Nurses, 201 E. Ogden, Suite 114, Hinsdale, IL 60521-3652; telephone: (630) 789-5799; fax: (630) 789-8901.]