Gordon looks back at her varied career in occupational health and describes how
she has overcome personal diversity to form her own successful OH consultancy
I started my career in occupational health in 1979 when I was appointed
nursing officer in OH at the Medway Health Authority. With a background in
Intensive Care and A&E nursing, I persuaded Brenda Slaney (whose obituary
appeared in Occupational Health December 2002) to add me to a fully subscribed
course at Fords of Dagenham and the Royal College of Nursing.
In 1985, I gained my Diploma in Nursing Education and was appointed lecturer
in OH nursing, replacing Ruth Alston, at the Institute of Advanced Nursing
Education. I was the first OH tutor to be appointed from a background in the
NHS OH service and enjoyed the challenge of running the full time courses.
Peter Holgate was the principal lecturer and I worked closely with Muriel
Lawson and Jane Molloy who led the day release courses.
The courses had been run in a traditional mode for some time and a more facilitative
style was introduced. Problem-solving groups, debates and practical exercises
helped prepare students for the real world and dilemmas faced in OH practice.
There was a need to improve communications between teachers and practical work
supervisors, so we set up facilitator days. This led to a greater selection of
placements and a challenging opportunity for open discussion and new ideas on
the meeting days. The certificate courses were to be upgraded to diploma and
degree level and we worked in line with other UK centres to establish these
Brenda Slaney and Peter Holgate had organised OH courses in Nigeria in the
early eighties, and plans were discussed to set up similar courses in Zambia.
Peter made a preliminary assessment visit, but was in poor health and shortly
afterwards tragically died from a heart attack at the wheel of his car in
France. We were all hugely shocked and his death left a large gap in the world
of OH nursing, the English National Board, the UKCC and more specifically at
the Institute. I was asked to become acting principal lecturer and was
appointed to the post a year later.
The Zambian courses now fell to me to develop and implement and it was a
sharp learning curve, as we were teaching within a totally different culture.
The students were very keen to learn and at the start sat expectantly waiting
with pencils and paper to write down every word. They soon were able to enjoy
our more facilitative style of teaching and we learned as much from them as they
did from us.
I remember leading a session on alcohol in the workplace. Two students were
giggling and one said: "It is not the same here because we work in a
brewery and some men have to be drunk. They are tasters and if they are not
drunk the bosses think the beer is bad."
There was also the issue around lack of health and safety in the lead
factory, where the workers were constantly coming to the clinic complaining of
stomach cramps, headaches and coughs. For the stomach cramps they were given
indigestion mixture, for the headaches paracetamol, for the coughs antibiotics.
No-one had thought of going to the factory to look at the processes, where
exposures to high levels of lead dust were causing the problems. Even the nurse
had been admitted to hospital for an appendicectomy, but just in time it was
found that her blood lead level was raised to a dangerous level.
After the course this student proudly wrote to me about the changes she had
implemented in the factory through safer work processes and ventilation
However, I was not satisfied with the training methods we had used and did
some research into developing courses in emerging countries. I later studied
for an MA, using this curriculum research as my focus. It is not effective to
‘lift’ a UK course and set it up in a foreign culture, many factors have to be
explored. The key points of OH practice remain the same but the context,
ethics, politics and environment are totally different. Further redesigned
courses followed and more than 100 Zambian nurses achieved the RCN Award
Certificate. One student, Maria Lemba, was able to come to the UK and study for
her full OHN qualification. She is still working here.
In 1988 I was involved in a car accident that damaged my cervical and
thoracic spine. I managed to keep working as much as possible, between hospital
admissions and outpatient treatments. However, eventually the pain and
disability caused by the accident forced me to take early retirement from the
RCN. I was devastated to lose my career and could see no way forward in the
field of OH.
The following year I achieved my MA in Education, but a few months later my
husband died of a massive brain stem haemorrhage. This happened the same
weekend that the youngest of three sons was leaving for university, 400 miles
away in Glasgow. In one year I had suffered three huge losses. I was well
supported by friends and family, but spent the first year feeling like an actor
on a stage, it wasn’t real, this wasn’t happening to me.
Eventually, I decided that despite my back problems, I was not brain dead
and I should get back to the real world. I started to do some teaching on a
freelance basis. In 1994 I was teaching for the British Safety Council when one
of the health and safety managers on the course asked me to give his company
some advice. His employer was a service company where there had never been OH
provision and he was interested in the emphasis I had made on prevention rather
So started my consultancy career. I quickly found myself in a hard-hat and
high visibility jacket, it was like ‘coming home’. The company (which asked not
to be named) is an international service company with a diverse and widespread
customer base, ranging from government defence organisations to airports and
commercial companies. There are 35,000 employees worldwide and services
provided include facilities management, project management and systems support
through to total business design, build, finance and operations.
Occupational health advice and interventions are therefore across a huge
range of working groups including Ministry of Defence (MOD) sites, leisure
centres, rail, health authorities, local government, education, building and
maintenance, dockyards, air traffic control and transport systems.
The initial work I carried out for the company was well received and
gradually, more divisions working within the parent company requested OH advice
and interventions. To my surprise I really enjoyed ‘getting back to the coal
face’ again and found the work varied and challenging. Educating management
about OH, gaining credibility by practice and setting up systems in a ‘virgin’
and sometimes unco-operative environment was exciting and I was able to live
out my long-held conviction that such a service can be successfully nurse led.
I was able to organise my work from home and the company was very supportive in
relation to my back problem by providing overnight accommodation and/or flying
to avoid too much driving.
Three years on, I was given a five-minute meeting with the chief executive.
He arrived without having read the executive summary I had prepared for him. He
allowed me a little more time to explain OH functions within his company, and
then he gave his full support. From then on I have been ultimately responsible
to the chief executive, who takes a personal interest in OH at our annual
meetings. At about the same time I started to sub-contract out some work and
gathered experienced nurse consultants into the Gordon Associates team (see
below for more on the work of the team).
Our team works across a wide variety of contracts, such as traffic systems,
MOD sites, leisure centres, rail maintenance, airfields, refuse collection and
As an international company we also advise globally and I have visited
Australia and Ascension Island for OH assessment.
We have designed a foundation course for nurses, which has RCN validation
and is available to any nurse who may be interested in working in the field of
OH. There are 17 nurses in the Gordon Associates team – led by Gesina Tait,
support director – some very well known and highly qualified OH nurses among
them. We are proud of achieving a high standard of service for our customers
and enjoy the autonomy and responsibility that we carry.
Six years ago I met John and we married. John had undergone a single lung
transplant a few years earlier and was the bravest person I have ever met. He
had a handicap of 10 in golf and we enjoyed life to the full, moving down to
Devon to enjoy less polluted air, which helped his breathing. Sadly John died
in June 2001. He had helped me a lot with my life, a determination to survive
and to make maximum use of every opportunity.
As I look back over my nursing career spanning 42 years, 23 of those in OH,
I can honestly say that as one door closes, another opens. As a part-time staff
nurse, single parent with three young sons, I would never have dreamed that I
would one day be teaching at the RCN, working in Zambia or setting up an OH
consultancy. I guess it’s all down to being motivated and sincerely believing
in the value of the service being offered. I have found no problems in
dovetailing my expertise as an OH nurse with other providers in this field,
such as health and safety advisers and ergonomists. Working together we each
bring a unique skill to our employers and more importantly, our clients.
I care deeply about nursing, occupational health and people, and believe
that focusing on OH issues, rather than jealously guarding our patches can
bring new life to our speciality. If anyone reading this article feels inspired
to take up consultancy work or to even get on the first rung of the ladder and
join one of our foundation courses, why not contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Mavis Gordon MA(Ed) RGN OHNCert DipNEd RNT, director Gordon Associates