We all know that working in the veterinary field carries a certain risk of injury. In fact, 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that veterinary medicine was second only to long-term care nursing in injury rates; in fact, veterinary employees have a higher rate of workplace injuries than people working in law enforcement or firefighting!1
Fortunately, our injuries are unlikely to be fatal. However, that doesn’t mean that we should become complacent or not take workplace injuries seriously.
While the majority of veterinary injuries involving worker compensation claims involve aggressive animals,2 working in this field can also take a more subtle, chronic toll on the body. Ergonomic injuries are difficult to document and are often difficult to directly pin on a specific workplace, but I’m sure you have probably heard vets and vet techs complain of back pain, neck pain, or other physical issues after years of working in this field.
The AVMA Ergonomic Guidelines3 have identified five specific actions that predispose veterinary team members to workplace injuries. Avoiding these actions may help you minimize your risk of work-related musculoskeletal injuries, increasing the likelihood of you enjoying a long and minimally-painful career!
1. Minimize bodily contortions while working with patients
Veterinary medicine is like a game of Twister; we often find ourselves in all sorts of awkward positions while working with patients. Unfortunately, maintaining these awkward positions for prolonged periods of time can lead to a number of different injuries.
The AVMA Guidelines specifically call out prolonged squatting and kneeling as a risk factor for injury, which is unfortunate because many vets and vet techs squat or kneel when working with large dogs. (I was diagnosed with arthritis in both knees several years ago and I do wonder whether 15 years of squatting at work played a role in that!) If you have access to a lift table at work, take the extra minute or two to place large dogs up on the table, instead of squatting on the ground. Finally, if you do find yourself needing to squat or kneel, try not to maintain this posture for a prolonged period of time.
2. Avoid prolonged repetitive motions
Repeating the same motion every few seconds for a long period of time is a known risk factor for muscle fatigue and injury. When possible, try to vary your tasks so that you aren’t repeatedly giving injections for hours at a time, extracting teeth for hours at a time, or doing anything else that is highly repetitive without a break for your muscles. You may not have any control over how many repetitive actions you perform in a day, but you can try to break up activities and change up your movements periodically.
3. Use care when lifting heavy patients
There’s no one-size-fits-all guideline for how much a person should lift, but the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has created a lengthy document with equations that can be used to determine recommended safe workplace lifting limits.4 According to that equation, the maximum weight that should be lifted by an individual is 51 lbs. However, this amount should be decreased if the load is difficult to hold (many dogs fall into this category!), if twisting must occur during lifting, or if other factors make lifting more difficult. While I know that we all occasionally lift dogs over 51 lbs. in an effort to save time, realize that doing so repeatedly may set you up for chronic injuries. Even if you are strong enough to lift large dogs, realize that doing so repeatedly may predispose you to musculoskeletal issues. Considering using a lift table or having someone help you when lifting large dogs.
4. Limit exposure to repeated vibrations
Vibrations, like those that occur when scaling or drilling teeth, are a known risk factor for musculoskeletal injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. While it’s impossible to completely avoid using dental tools, be aware of the risks that they pose. Minimize the amount of continuous time you spend using these devices and take frequent breaks to rest your hands.
5. Minimize forceful pinching and grasping
Using force when pinching (with the fingers) and grasping (with the hand) may also lead to muscle injuries. While this is another factor that cannot be entirely avoided, especially during certain surgeries, be conscious of this risk, try to avoid using more force than necessary, and take breaks as needed.
In the rush to see more patients, in order to satisfy our clients and employers, we all take certain shortcuts. It’s easy to cast aside concerns about future chronic injuries in the light of the more urgent day-to-day concerns of practice. However, it’s important to remember that there will probably come a day when you wish you had taken better care of your back, knees, and other parts of your body! Get in the habit of taking the extra few seconds to do things safely, instead of plunging ahead and pushing your body to its limits.
- McReynolds T. 2019. US Department of Labor: Working in the veterinary field is more dangerous than working in law enforcement. AAHA.
- Larkin M, Cima G. 2018. Hurt at work: Injuries common in clinics, often from animals, and usually preventable. AVMA.
- Veterinary Ergonomic Guidelines.
- Waters TR, Putz-Anderson V, Garg A. 1994. Applications Manual for the Revised NIOSH Lifting Equation.