Milda Walkley - My Occ Health Story
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The phone rang. A recruiter asked if I had ER experience. Yes. “Would you like to cover for an industrial nurse?” (Thinking she must mean industrious nurse, aren’t all nurses industrious?) “for 6 weeks in a factory”. Silly woman, nurses don’t work in factories. And so, my baptism as an industrial nurse began in a wire manufacturing factory. The wire making process began with ingots which were smelted in huge blast furnaces until molten and then extruded as red-hot rods about 30 feet long and several inches in diameter. After cooling, the rods passed through many machines ultimately becoming thinner and thinner until the desired diameter for the wire was achieved.
Apparently disconnecting the safety bar (which shut the machine down if a body part was accidently sucked into the machine) made the machine run faster and improved productivity. There were also huge open vats of chemicals off-gassing while employees worked nearby. OSHA was non-existent as was EHS. Thankfully there were no serious accidents during my tenure although I was told about a few amputations and one death caused by the machinery.
For me occ health is the most varied and interesting specialty. It encompasses scientific knowledge, business strategies, interpersonal skills and professional nursing skills and even dipping into the legal arena. As Forrest Gump commented about the box of chocolates, when you reach in you never know what you will get and likewise for occ health. Other than rules and regulations and compliance issues, one cannot really study or prepare for the next unknown challenge. We never stops learning from daily experiences.
Most of us operate in single nurse sites with a little remote backup. That takes confidence, competence and guts to be The Nurse for hundreds, sometimes a thousand or more employees who depend on your knowledge, skills and compassion.
As you know, your position is shaped by the industry you support. I have been fortunate enough to have gained occupational health experience in manufacturing, corporate environments, a health insurer, a veterinary hospital, a school, several academic campuses, many research laboratories, and two case management companies. Within those settings I have guided employees through a workers’ compensation claim or a disability claim, evacuated employees from remote geographical locations including Antarctica and provided travel medicine to local and remote employees. I also assisted with the initial setup of an electronic medical record system and trained nurses across the country in its use. Several years ago, I saw the need for a 24/7 exposure response call center for research laboratory employees and established what I believe to be the only exposure response call center in Massachusetts and have clients across the country.
I am very grateful to have had many unique opportunities but still a bit jealous of the nurses entering occupational health today as there are so many more diverse opportunities. Go get ‘em!