According to 2016 statistics, someone working full-time in the veterinary field has a 12% chance of sustaining a work-related injury or illness in any given year.1 This means that veterinary professionals are more likely to be injured at work than almost any other career, with the sole exception of residential care nursing!2
While firefighting may seem more hazardous at first glance, and firefighting injuries are probably more likely to be serious or fatal than veterinary injuries, firefighters have a 9.5% likelihood of being injured at work in any given year,2 which means they are 20% less likely to be injured at work in a given year than a full-time veterinary worker.
Animal bites or scratches are the most common injuries reported in veterinary clinics. In fact, the AVMA PLIT reported that approximately three-quarters of its worker compensation claims from 2014 to 2016 involved an animal attack.3 The second most common injury in vet techs is sprains and strains, while other common injuries include toxin exposure, being struck by or against an object, being caught under or between objects, and slips/falls.3
While safety should be a consistent priority in all veterinary practices, the truth is that many practices appear to prioritize speed and efficiency over employee safety. In these practices, workplace safety is an afterthought, instead of being given the attention that it deserves.
I still clearly remember my first injury as a vet assistant, in one of my first veterinary jobs. I was bit by a cat while helping the vet restrain for radiographs. In hindsight, I’m not even sure that we had a rabies vaccine history on the cat; still, my veterinarian approached the entire thing as an inconvenience that was my fault. I was made to feel guilty and expected to quickly brush off the incident. He told me to “put some Panalog on it” (a combination antibiotic/steroid ointment) and never even suggested that I seek medical attention. Because I was young and naive, I didn’t think to go against his advice and see a doctor… even when my finger swelled and began draining purulent discharge. I was lucky that the bite didn’t lead to a systemic infection, but I shudder to think of how many other vet assistants and vet techs find themselves in a similar position, working in a practice where safety is not valued.
How Can You Stay Safe at Work?
While your employer plays a role in creating a safe workplace, there are a number of steps that you can take to reduce your risk of workplace injuries.
- Take your time and avoid the temptation to rush mindlessly through tasks. Don’t hesitate to take a minute, step back, and ask yourself whether there is a safer way to get the job done.
- Ask the veterinarian to sedate aggressive pets for handling.
- Participate in regular employee safety training when offered.
- Read chemical labels carefully and consult the Safety Data Sheets for guidelines regarding any chemicals you use on a regular basis.
- Use good ergonomic practices. Ask for help from a coworker when lifting heavy patients, avoid prolonged kneeling or squatting, and change positions frequently when conducting a lengthy procedure (such as a dental cleaning).
- Use caution when moving oxygen tanks and other risky objects.
- Keep walkways dry and clear of clutter, to minimize the risk of slips and falls.
- Wear closed-toe, non-slip shoes that will protect your feet from injury.
If you see unsafe scenarios at work, talk to your supervisor or workplace safety officer. Offer suggestions to improve employee safety, without sacrificing patient care or client service. In some cases, practices fall into the trap of doing things a certain way because that is how they’ve always done them. A fresh set of eyes can help them recognize safer ways to accomplish their goals.
Don’t Take Your Health for Granted
If you’re anything like I was at the start of my career, you may take it for granted that you will always be able to lift large dogs, spend long days on your feet, and do all of the other little things that go into working in the veterinary field. Unfortunately, that isn’t a sure thing! I know many vets and vet techs who wish they had taken better care of their backs and knees early in their career because now they’re dealing with arthritis, disk problems, and other injuries. Get in the habit of prioritizing your health and safety at work, so that you can enjoy a long and fulfilling career as a vet tech.
- McReynolds T. 2019. US Department of Labor: Working in the veterinary field is more dangerous than working in law enforcement. AAHA.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. TABLE SNR01. Highest incidence rates of total nonfatal occupational injury and illness cases, 2016.
- Larkin M, Cima G. 2018. Hurt at work: Injuries common in clinics, often from animals, and usually preventable. AVMA.