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Occupational health nursing skills and role development

Occupational health nurses are registered nurses with a range of different skills and experience.

No specific qualifications are required for a registered nurse to work in occupational health but some nurses choose to gain a specialist qualification and these are offered by a number of universities around the UK.

Occupational health nursing: role development

For anyone interested in a career in this area of nursing, any of the following would be considered beneficial:

  • experience of working in accident and emergency and/or practice nursing
  • public health, infection control
  • counselling, psychological health
  • learning about relevant legislation
  • management of sickness absence
  • development of manual handling policies and rehabilitation of staff with chronic conditions
  • undertaking a role as an RCN safety representative.

Knowledge of health promotion and education is desirable as well as an understanding of health and safety issues, health screening, stress management and basic first aid.

Membership of the RCN public health nursing forum can provide a useful means of keeping up to date with current developments. Attending occupational health conferences also provides the opportunity to network with nurses working within this field.

Specialist occupational health nurses

Specialist occupational health nurses undertake an additional period of formal study in occupational health, leading to a recognised specialist degree in occupational health nursing. For more information, see: Specialist community public health nursing (SCPHN)

Educating occupational health nurses

Public Health England has launched guidance for educating occupational health nurses. As well as setting out the recommended approach for nurse education going forward, this document incorporates ‘general prompts’ for HEIs and lecturers in assessing and refreshing occupational health nursing educational programmes. It also lists the necessary ‘theory, knowledge and skills’ that must be included into education programmes to ensure excellent, high quality occupational health services. 

For more information, see: Educating occupational health nurses. An approach to align education with a service vision for occupational health nurses.

The role of the specialist occupational health nurse incorporates:

  • implementing comprehensive pro-active occupational health and safety strategy to prevent occupational injury and disease
  • promotion of health and work ability, by focusing on non-occupational, workplace preventable conditions that, whilst not caused directly by work, may affect the employees ability to maintain attendance or performance at work, through a comprehensive workplace health promotion strategy
  • improving environmental health management, by reducing risk to the working population and the wider community
  • contributing to the wider public health agenda.

National oversight and coordination of training for occupational health nurses is provided by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), which maintains a register of specialist community and public health nurses. Nurses with a qualification in occupational health are distinguished as specialists in – ‘Community and Public Health – OH’.

See: RCN Occupational health nursing: career and competence development.

Role development

Over the past 20 years the role of the occupational health nurse has changed from that of an industrial nurse dealing with accidents and illness at work and providing a treatment and first-aid service to a role that encompasses all aspects of preventative health care as a specialist community public health nurse.

Occupational health is preventative rather than curative and proactive rather than reactive.

The role of the occupational health nurse must change in line with globalization, the changing economy, changing patterns of employment, changing attitudes and changing health risks (Kenny, 1999).

Occupational health nursing: clinical issues

Work and health

It is recognised that being in work has a positive impact on health and wellbeing. It is important to appropriately manage sickness and absence and to support people to return to work as soon as possible.

Fit for work

Fit for Work is a Government funded initiative designed to support people in work with health conditions and help with sickness absence. The campaign recognises that being in work contributes significantly to good health. The longer someone is off sick, the harder it is for them to get back to work. Being out of work for long periods of time is damaging to social and financial well-being as well as health. Fit for Work is an advice line service providing support for GPs, employers and employees to help those who are in work and off sick. For England, Wales and Scotland, see: England & Wales and Scotland.

In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Civil Service Centre for workplace health has launched the Health & Wellbeing Programme with advice on managing attendance and fitness for work, and it also provides advice on fitness for work. There is also advice from Invest NI.


Occupational health nurses provide a variety of vaccines including staff flu vaccinations. The RCN has further information on vaccination and immunisation.

Medicines optimisation

Occupational Health Schemes (OHS) are exempt from the restrictions that apply to; general sales list medicines, pharmacy medicines and prescription only medicines. (An OHS is a scheme in which a person, in the course of a business carried on by him, provides facilities for employees for the treatment or prevention of disease.) 
NICE guidance Patient Group Directions (PGD) 2013 recommends that PGDs are not used when exemptions in legislation allow medicine supply and/or administration without the need for a PGD. The scope of this exemption in legislation is much broader than the use of PGDs. There is further information on the NHS Specialist Pharmacy Services website in "To PGD or not to PGD".

In the case of prescription only medicines, the person supplying or administering the medicines, if not a doctor, must be a registered nurse. They must act in accordance with the written instructions of a doctor setting out the circumstances in which the medicine is to be used under the OHS.
See the BMA: The occupational physician. The BMA guidance for Occupational Physicians has useful information on prescribing in occupational health settings and an example template for a ‘Specimen operating policy/written instruction’ in the appendix 6.

Statutory medical examinations

The Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have further advice but nurses are not able to carry out statutory medical examinations where it is specified that these must be done by a medical practitioner, for example for asbestos and ionising radiation medicals.

RCN SOM Occ Health conference 2018

Key issues in occupational health

Save the date for this leading occupational health nursing conference

30 Nov 2018, London

Back by popular demand: we are pleased to announce the Royal College of Nursing and the Society of Occupational Medicine's joint one day conference. Open to RCN members, SOM members and non-members alike, this conference is designed to support all health professionals working in or with an interest in occupational health. 

Find out more