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Whether to meet continuing education requirements, get a better job, or to satisfy a personal desire to improve in the profession, occupational health nurses always are looking for opportunities for professional development.
"It’s important for them, as it is in any field, to maintain expertise and knowledge of the field," says Susan A. Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, president of the Atlanta-based American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN). Randolph said nurses often are looking for more than just the state-mandated continuing education they are obliged to get. They want more training that will help shape their careers, and they want it to be accessible.
Conventional avenues for obtaining career development training include the university setting and conferences sponsored by professional organizations such as AAOHN and its state chapters.
Besides going back to school for a postgraduate degree, occ-health professionals can use colleges and universities as resources for other types of specialty training.
NIOSH has established Education and Research Centers (ERCs) at universities throughout the United States. The organization currently funds 16 ERCs that provide multidisciplinary graduate and continuing education programs in occupational medicine, occupational health nursing, industrial hygiene, and safety. The centers serve as regional resources those working in occupational health and safety, including industry, labor, government, academic, and the general public. ERCs are funded for five-year periods by NIOSH under a competitive peer-review process.
Besides the academic training programs, NIOSH supports ERC short-term continuing education programs for occupational safety and health professionals and others with worker safety and health responsibilities.
"Outside the university setting, professional organizations have lot to offer," Randolph says. "On the national, state, and local levels, they offer a lot of wonderful [continuing education] programs and networking opportunities."
But longer workdays and shorter leisure time has made it difficult for some nurses to get face-to-face advanced training or continuing education.
"It used to be that you would travel to a program or go to a class; but work has changed, companies have merged and don’t have as many staff, so people are tied to their jobs and it’s hard to get away," Randolph observes. "We’re seeing more offerings being provided through distance learning, and that’s opened up a lot more professional development opportunities."
AAOHN offers a list of continuing education opportunities and professional development courses, some of which are available as on-line or downloaded self-study courses. Other professional organizations, including the American Industrial Hygiene Association (www.aiha.org), American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (www.acoem.org), and the Institute of Industrial Engineers (www.iienet.org), offer self-study and distance learning as well as on-site training at conferences.
But with more and more occupation health nurses reporting they are working longer hours — more than half of those responding to Occupational Health Management’s 2004 Salary Survey reported that they work more than 40 hours, and as many as 60 hours, each week — the flexibility and cost savings offered by self-study courses is very attractive to many in the field, Randolph says. "They can take courses at their convenience rather than on a specific day and time," she points out. "With videoconferencing and audio conferencing, you can attend it or miss it entirely, then bring it up on your computer, view the slides, or listen to it on CD when it’s convenient. You print off a lesson or article, read it when you can, take a quiz on-line, print off your documentation, and you’re done."
Training increases your worth
Even though it seems there may not be enough hours in the week to fit in the additional training, getting those hours in is critical to improving the worth of the occupational health nurse, particularly when companies are looking to trim budgets. "It is important to show your value — what do you bring to the job that justifies your existence?" Randolph says. "Why should your workplace or company have an occupational health nurse?"
It’s easy for companies to rationalize that as they belt-tighten, merge, and lay off employees, they may not need on-site nurses or an occupational health program. Keeping abreast of training and being able to demonstrate what an occupational health program means to the employer in terms of new programs that can save the company money by getting people back to work sooner or picking up on a disease earlier can be instrumental in preserving occupational health programs and jobs, Randolph surmises.
Wendi Robbins, RN, PhD, director of occupational and environmental health nursing at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Nursing, one of the NIOSH ERCs, says her center is seeing increasing demand for occupational health practitioners. "The practitioner can not only administer advance practice nursing at the worksite — suturing, etc. — but comes out with a master’s level degree and training in strategic planning, evaluation of programs, and that sort of thing," she says.
The role of the occupational health nurse in the workplace is changing, Robbins says, and so training for future occ-health nurses is adapting. "Our program, for example, is interdisciplinary with business programs and industrial hygiene programs," she says. "They are all in courses together, and I think the nurses are seeing where they can expand their scope by getting masters’ degrees."
The core materials that new occupational health nurses need to know has not changed all that much, Randolph says, but for the seasoned nurse, the emphasis might be on advancing his or her knowledge in specific areas, gaining new expertise in technology, or learning new techniques for case management. "SARS, bioterrorism . . ., there are always going to be things that require us to stay on top of developing topics," she points out.
Employees often consult the occupational health nurses at their work sites about non-work-related problems, such as arthritis or a sports-related injury, and if they get information or second opinions that prove trustworthy, the nurses’ value to that employee — and thus, to the employer — has risen, Randolph suggests. "And depending on the type of worksite you are in and the number of nurses there, you might be taking care of injuries, doing case management, and being an office manager, whereas if you have several nurses you might have just one responsibility," she says. "So depending on your workplace and the demands on you, your professional development needs will vary."
Footing the bill
As companies’ budgets get tightened, money available for professional development is often one of the first things to go. "In California, it’s pretty dreadful in terms of budgeting," Robbins says. "We are seeing maybe 10% of our students are experienced occupational health nurses who are coming back to expand their scope of knowledge," Robbins observes. "The other, major portion are hospital-based nurses who are looking to advance their practice roles."
Mandatory continuing education has to come first, but if there is additional training that could extend an occupational health nurse’s job duties at a particular worksite, or would expand the services he or she could offer the employer for a relatively low cost, sometimes a well-planned presentation to the employer is all it takes to justify the cost.
AAOHN offers various grants to help with continuing education, leadership development, and return to school full time, and state and local chapters of national professional organizations frequently offer scholarships to help members attend training conferences.
A cost factor often overlooked is the cost in time — an occupational health nurse who is attending a conference isn’t at work, and that can cost the employer money. When a nurse is the lone staff member in that company’s occupational health program, distance learning might be a more readily accepted alternative for the employer.
AAOHN offers workshops to its members that help them make their case to their companies, including a skill set, success tools, and information on maximizing their value and demonstrating that value to their companies.
An eye on future technology
Occupational health nurses are going to continue to see their roles — and demands on them — change, and Robbins says being technologically savvy will be key to adapting to the changes. "One thing here in California, as well as in other parts of the country, is the push toward becoming familiar with nanotechnology [a science devoted to engineering things that are unimaginably small]," Robbins says. Nanoscale materials are increasingly being used in optoelectronic, electronic, magnetic, medical imaging, drug delivery, cosmetic, catalytic, and materials applications.
According to NIOSH, the occupational health risks associated with manufacturing and using nanomaterials are not yet clearly understood. Many nanomaterials and devices are formed from nanometer-scale particles (nanoparticles) that are initially produced as aerosols or colloidal suspensions.
Workers within nanotechnology-related industries have the potential to be exposed to uniquely engineered materials with novel sizes, shapes, and physical and chemical properties, at levels far exceeding ambient concentrations. For now, NIOSH is urging caution when there is potential for workers to be exposed to nanoparticles.
"Even though we don’t know the extent to which nanotechnology could affect worker health, we are making sure our graduates here at UCLA are at least familiar with nanotechnology, because we want them to be in line with the new technology-driven, global kinds of industry."
A current CE course schedule for all NIOSH Education and Research Centers is available. Contact NIOSH by phone: (800) 35-NIOSH [(800) 356-4674], or go to the NIOSH web site: www.niosh-erc.org. Information on occupational health and nanotechnology is available at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech/.
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