An Interview with Deborah Fell-Carlson, MSPH, RN, COHN-S, HEM, FAAOHN

Interview conducted by: Florence Dyer, ANP-C, Chair of the AAOHN Careers Committee  

DebFell-CarlsonQ: How did you get where you are in your career? 

A:  I did not always want to be a nurse. I attended a program for practical nursing as a way to fund college. I started to work as an LPN in a 20-bed rural hospital in the Black Hills of South Dakota, while in the National Guard. The hospital was small, offering opportunities to work with and develop nursing skills within diverse groups of patients.  I soon realized that I enjoyed the challenge of nursing, and went on to obtain my associate degree in nursing. Unable to find full-time work there as a Registered Nurse, I accepted a position with the Ft. Meade Veterans Hospital near Sturgis, SD. While working in the intensive care unit there, I became intrigued by the significant number of patients with severe respiratory diseases. I learned by chatting with them that most had worked in the mines. This prompted an intense learning experience for me about the impact of people’s jobs on their health and changed my nursing care perspective, firing up my passion for occupational health. Later, an opportunity came up to work full-time with the South Dakota Army National Guard as an occupational health nurse manager. I served in that role for almost 10 years. My husband and I relocated to Oregon where I ultimately was hired by SAIF Corporation, Oregon’s state-chartered worker’s compensation carrier.  My job there is mostly to assist policyholders to better understand the relationship between employee health and the prevention of injuries, both on and off the job. We focus on helping employers take action at the organizational level to address six areas of health with a direct impact in safety: fatigue management, stress management, healthy nutrition and hydration, fitness, and tobacco/nicotine avoidance. I use the Total Worker HealthTM principles from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to guide my efforts. We partner closely with the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center, a NIOSH Center of Excellence based in Portland, Oregon.  

Q: How did you prepare yourself to be qualified for occupational health nursing?  

A: The occupational health nurse manager position with the South Dakota Army National Guard was a new position for the organization. The National Guard Bureau provided extensive training to nurses hired into the one position in each state.  I am grateful to have been able to take advantage of this excellent training and to have been able to use this knowledge to serve our soldiers. I continued my nursing studies and obtained the bachelor’s degree in nursing from South Dakota State University, a certification in occupational health from ABOHN, and later a master’s degree in public health from Oregon State University.

Q: How do you stay abreast of your job?

A:  I try to reach out to and interact with occupational health nurses and safety professionals from different work environments both locally and nationally.  I also try to stay involved with the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN), by seeking opportunities to serve in a role that fits my schedule but also meet the needs of the organization. There are projects to fit everyone, and I learn from each one. Involvement in projects and committee work is one of the best ways to learn and stay aware of emerging issues.

Q:  How do you advance your education?

A:  I continue my education through attendance of annual conferences and webinars offered by AAOHN and other professional groups.  I also participate in continuing education courses offered online by associations such as AAOHN and NIOSH.  Another way that I continue to grow is through presentations that I prepare and deliver, which are guided by the interests, concerns and questions voiced by employers.  

Q: What advice would you give to occupational health nurses who are unsure of where to begin developing their career and exploring leadership opportunities?

A:  Definitely get the occupational health nurse certification, or COHN. It is a specific recognition for occupational health nurses, and is very highly prized by institutions, corporations and small businesses.  It has been very useful to me.  Also, participate in state and national conferences and workshops relating to occupational health and safety. They give a boost to your knowledge and hone skills, as well as offer a great opportunity for networking with like-minded professionals. Lastly, work at developing partnerships with employers and institutions in the geographical area where you work and also at the state and national level.  This will help to increase awareness of the value of occupational health nursing.