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Go Online for a Masterís in Occupational Health Nursing

Sunday September 30, 2007
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Imagine sitting at your computer during the day, evening, or on the weekend and taking classes while earning a master of public health degree. Your dinner is finished, the kitchen cleaned up, and the kids are in bed. You have just finished listening to a lecture and completed an assignment, all from the comfort of your own home.

This distance learning approach makes getting an advanced degree easy. Imagine being only a click away from going back to school on your terms ó when you want and where you want. And, if you have an interest in occupational health nursing, there is a specific degree that might work for you ó the masterís in public health (MPH) degree with a concentration in occupational health nursing accredited by the National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission Inc. (NLNAC).

Who are occupational health nurses?

Occupational and environmental health nursing is the specialty practice of nurses who provide for and deliver health care services to workers and worker populations. Because workers usually spend at least one-third of their day on the job, it is imperative they be as healthy and productive as possible.

Occupational and environmental health nurses (OEHNs) help employees stay healthy at work by focusing on promotion and restoration of health, prevention of illness and injury, and protection from work-related and environmental hazards. This specialty practice is highly interdisciplinary and OEHNs often work with other members of the occupational health team, such as occupational physicians, industrial hygienists, ergonomists, and safety professionals to provide occupational health and safety services and programs. OEHNs also must be knowledgeable about occupational safety and health laws, workersí compensation, and other legislative influences that impact workers and the environment.

There are approximately 36,000 occupational and environmental health nurses in the U.S.1 who work in a variety of roles, such as clinician, manager, consultant, educator/researcher, case manager, and health promotion specialist. They work in diverse settings including industry; hospital employee health units; occupational health clinics; academia; and local, state, and federal government facilities. Wherever there are workers, there could be an OEHN.

Online oasis

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillís program, which began in 1999, is the only distance education program in occupational health nursing that is totally online, with the exception of four weeks on campus, for the entire length of the program. To ensure OEHNs have a firm interdisciplinary knowledge base, the curriculum includes core public health courses, occupational health sciences courses, occupational health nursing courses, practicums, and a masterís paper. Students have Internet-based learning, independent study, and only two weeks of on-campus study for two summer sessions.

The program can be completed in about two years, but students have five years from admission to complete it. Traineeship assistance is available from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for students admitted to the program who are U.S. citizens or those with permanent visa status. Practicum experiences are tailored to the studentís needs, interests, and professional growth. They can be completed in the studentís home area or through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), NIOSH, or corporate settings.

Since the program began in 1999, almost 10 students have graduated. One graduate wrote: ďFor me, the program was perfect .... The courses were completely online so I could access them at any time of the day from any place, even logging in abroad. I attended two-week residencies at the university in the summers of 2001 and 2002. The faculty was extremely attentive, guiding me the entire way.Ē

Of course, distance education may not be for everyone. Some students prefer more traditional education and face-to-face interaction with faculty and classmates. Students who tend to prefer distance education want to keep their full-time job, are unable to relocate, and like Internet-based learning because the online process takes a real commitment to keep up with the course requirements. Students must feel comfortable using the technology and asking for help if they have questions or donít understand an assignment.

Remote education is becoming an important avenue for life-long learning. If attending class in your pajamas in the comfort of your own home sounds good, distance education may be for you.


Susan A. Randolph, RN, MSN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, is a clinical instructor for the University of North Carolinaís occupational health nursing program. Bonnie Rogers, DrPH, COHN-S, LNCC, FAAN, is director of North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Center and the UNC occupational health nursing program. Judith S. Ostendorf, RN, MPH, COHN-S, CCM, FAAOHN, is a clinical instructor for UNCís occupational health nursing program.Editor's Note: For more information about this distance education option, e-mail Bonnie Rogers at rogersb@email.unc.edu or Judy Ostendorf at judy_ostendorf@unc.edu. Reference1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Registered Nurse Population: Findings from the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses. Available at: www.bhpr.hrsa.gov/healthworkforce/reports/rnsurvey/rnss1.htm. Accessed September 9, 2004.