If you have worked in more than just one or two veterinary practices, you have probably witnessed some unsafe work situations! I wish I could say that isn’t the case, but the reality is that the rate of injuries among veterinary employees is higher than the injury rate seen in the majority of other professions.1
I still clearly remember my first (and fortunately, worst!) injury in vet med. I was working as a vet assistant while home from college on summer break. As I was helping the vet restrain a cat for radiographs, the cat bit my finger and I ended up with a deep puncture wound. I suppose I was just young and naive, but I went along with the vet’s efforts to downplay my injury and blamed myself for getting injured.
When my finger was red and swollen the next day, I asked him if I should see a doctor; I had no previous experience with cat bites and Dr. Google was far less informative in those days. Instead, he advised me to continue working and “put some Panalog on it.” In hindsight, I should have been proactive enough to seek medical care on my own, but he also should have recommended it. I was fortunate that the wound eventually started draining and healed, but everything that I have since learned about cat bites has made me realize how much worse my outcome could have been.
The Importance of Workplace Safety
When you’re first starting in this field, especially if you’re a younger student, workplace safety may not seem like a high-priority consideration. When you’re young and healthy, it’s difficult to imagine that things could ever be different for you.
In my fifteen years in this profession, however, I have met a number of vets and vet techs with back pain, arthritis, and other chronic injuries that they attribute (at least partially) to the work conditions that they’ve endured in veterinary medicine. While it’s nearly impossible to prove that many of these conditions are entirely work-related, there’s no arguing that vet med presents a number of opportunities for injury. A practice that doesn’t pay close attention to workplace safety could potentially have effects that will follow you for the rest of your career.
Ask These Screening Questions During Interviews
While no practice owner or manager is going to directly come out and tell you that their practice is an unsafe working environment, there are a number of questions you can ask that might help you get a feel for the practice’s overall approach. Based on their responses to these yes or no questions, you can ask detailed follow-up questions to be sure that you understand the practice’s approach to these scenarios.
- Do you require aggressive dogs and cats to be sedated for veterinary visits?
- Do you typically sedate patients for radiographs?
- Is a vet tech or vet assistant typically present in the exam room to restrain pets during their physical exam or other procedures?
- Do you have lift tables available for large dogs?
- Do you have a plan to minimize waste anesthetic gas exposure?
- How does your practice handle hostile or abusive clients?
A “wrong” answer on one of these questions isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker but should suggest the need to proceed with caution. If these questions uncover multiple safety gaps, I would suggest that you consider another practice.
Watch for These Red Flags During Working Interviews
No matter how many questions you ask during an interview, there are some safety issues that you won’t catch until you’re actually working in the hospital. If you have the opportunity to spend more time in a hospital during a working interview, keep in mind these common OSHA violations seen in veterinary practices:
- Lack of proper documentation, including a hazard communication program, fire/emergency plan, employee training documentation, and required OSHA forms
- Lack of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) or certified PPE assessment
- Lack of necessary Safety Data Sheets
- Lack of appropriate chemical labeling
- Presence of human food and drinks in unsafe areas
- Excessive waste anesthetic gas exposure2
While these items are certainly important, especially from a legal/regulatory standpoint, there are other items you should also pay special attention to when visiting a potential employer. In addition to verifying the information that you were given during your initial interview, watch for the following:
- Do the doctors have adequate support staff assistance to safely restrain animals?
- Do team members work together to lift heavy pets or are individuals expected to lift large dogs without assistance?
- Is the hospital free of clutter and trip hazards?
- Are anesthetic machines connected to active or passive scavenging, with all animals intubated and cuffs properly inflated?
- Are pets left connected to oxygen for a few minutes after anesthesia, or are they immediately removed from the breathing circuit?
- Are the practice’s oxygen tanks secured properly?
- Are emergency exits clearly marked? Are sharps containers easily accessible and not overloaded?
While you certainly can’t detect every possible safety risk during a one or two-day working interview, that’s often long enough to get a general feel for whether the practice takes employee safety seriously or whether safety is expected to take a back seat to efficiency and productivity.
Don’t Underestimate the Value of Workplace Safety
While a practice may appear to have a bunch of possible advantages, those advantages may become relatively meaningless if you sustain a serious injury or develop a chronic musculoskeletal condition due to unsafe conditions at work. While it’s probably impossible to ever guarantee a completely safe veterinary practice (after all, we are working with unpredictable animals!), finding a practice with a culture of safety can help ensure that you have the opportunity to enjoy a long and rewarding career in veterinary medicine.
- McReynolds T. 2019. US Department of Labor: Working in the veterinary field is more dangerous than working in law enforcement. AAHA.
- Walsh S. 2018. Uh-Oh, It’s OSHA. Today’s Veterinary Business.