RCN SOHN Annual Conference 2009

Key themes at this year’s RCN Occupational Health Conference and Exhibition, which took place in Southport in November, included implementing the Health and Wellbeing at Work strategy, making the business case for investing in the health and wellbeing of staff, and how occupational health fits into the public health arena. The recession had an effect on the number of delegates attending, with numbers 30% down on last year with 208 attendants.


‘Question time’


A ‘question time’ session saw representatives from OH education, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM) responding to delegates’ questions about the challenge for competent practice, the application of the General Medical Council guidelines on confidentiality to OH nursing practice, and the future of OH education.


Dame Carol Black gave a keynote address on day two, and encouraged debate on how OH advisers can assist the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in achieving its objective of improving UK working lives.


Forum changes


Cynthia Atwell, chair of the RCN Public Health forum, opened the conference, arguing that the changes in forum structure now in place would benefit occupational health (OH) nurses, although she expressed some regret at the loss of the Society of Occupational Health Nursing forum (SOHN).


RCN chief executive Dr Peter Carter supported Atwell’s views. He showed surprise at the low attendance at the conference and exhibition, and promised to keep matters under review in recognition of the fact that there was some dissatisfaction with the dissolution of SOHN. Carter said he took up post too late to prevent the new structure’s implementation but did not explain why he had not taken steps to correct what he acknowledged as being mistakes. He also announced that he’d had a swine flu vaccine, and urged nurses and other healthcare workers to follow his example.


Carter courted controversy by comparing consulting OH nurses to high cost management consultants in the health service, without apparently recognising that increasing numbers of independent OH nurses are playing a key role in filling in gaps in service left by the downsizing of many OH services at a time when the need for OH is increasing. He also failed to recognise the big gap in fees between the two groups.


NICE guidelines


Other speakers focused on how theory can improve practice and the importance of an evidence base. Dr Richard Preece and OH adviser Mary McFadzean introduced the NICE Guidelines for the Management of Sickness Absence. Preece emphasised the importance of practitioner involvement in developing other NICE guidance.


OH education and NMC standards


A panel debate provoked questions from the floor on whether OH education is fit for purpose, and there was concern over the mismatch between NMC standards and reality in practice.


The key note speaker was professor Mike Kelly, director of the NICE Centre for Public Excellence, who raised concerns over the new public health threats such as obesity and the positive role that the workplace can play, particularly in facilitating physical exercise.


Jan Maw, RCN public health adviser, looked at the history of public health workers and how in the past their role was closely aligned with the emerging profession of OH. She emphasised the public health focus that currently influences the strategic objectives of OH nursing. Maw argued that following the amalgamation of the RCN’s OH forum into the new Public Health Forum, OH expertise will be needed to ensure that public health professionals are able to provide a seamless healthcare service to the workforce.


Council for Work and Health


Cynthia Atwell outlined the history, development and mission of the Council for Work and Health. The guiding mission is ‘to ensure that people have the best opportunities to benefit from the positive health impacts of employment, and that workers are not injured or made ill by the work that they undertake’.


The membership is made up of a multidisciplinary representative group of professional bodies with an independent chair, lawyer Diana Kloss. The council will meet quarterly, with working groups set up for special projects. The current planned actions are:




  • Production of guidance on professional qualifications.


  • Setting up of working groups to develop a paper regarding OHN education.


  • Identifying the future health needs of the working population in 10 years’ time.


  • Contributing to the National Stakeholder Council in informing government policy.

Robert Manson, director of employee health and performance UK at pharmaceutical company GSK, presented a case study on the company’s Energy for Performance programme for senior leaders and managers across the organisation. The programme is delivered by the OH team and focuses on how employees can manage and lead effectively to optimise performance, productivity and impact. Evaluation of the programme from more than 3,000 participants in more than 30 countries has demonstrated improvements in mental and physical performance both in home and work life.


Closing speech


In closing the conference, Cynthia Atwell thanked the SOHN committee and nursing colleagues for their support in the past, and reminded delegates to be alert for announcements on the RCN website about elections to the Public Health forum to ensure that OH nursing is represented.


Next year’s joint OH Nursing and Society of Occupational Medicine Conference will be held in Brighton on the 18 and 19 October.


By Graham Johnson, Caroline Whittaker and Bashyr Aziz

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