Workers in veterinary medicine are exposed to a wide variety of workplace health and safety hazards. Many resources are available to help protect worker safety and health.
Employers in veterinary settings have a legal and ethical obligation to protect the safety and health of their employees, volunteers, students, clients, and patients. The first step is to develop a comprehensive, written safety and health program. Such programs help prevent occupational illness and injury, improve worker morale and productivity, increase profitability, and decrease insurance costs. Regulatory agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the US require these programs. Local, state, provincial, and national requirements may vary by geographic location. OSHA's Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs provides information to assist in developing a safety and health program.
An important part of this program is employee health. The employer should establish a program that evaluates employees for preexposure vaccination against rabies, tetanus, and influenza as well as for preexisting health conditions. The program should be administered by a health care provider with experience in occupational safety and health, and employees' medical information should be confidentially maintained. Training employees how to report, document, and evaluate exposure incidents like bites and other injuries should be part of the program.
Written, documented training on hazards and prevention is a critical part of the safety and health program. Employers should provide training before workers begin job duties and periodically as needed (at least annually or when procedures change). Training is necessary for anyone who works or volunteers for the practice or hospital in any capacity. Knowledge assessments ensure that staff understand the training materials and how to protect themselves at work.
Workplace-Specific Hazard Assessment in Veterinary Medicine
Every veterinary workplace should be assessed to identify and evaluate potential site-specific physical, chemical, and biological hazards. Identifying workplace hazards is the first step; ensuring that new, recurring, and changing hazards are identified is a continual process. Recognizing, evaluating, and controlling the identified hazards are important measures to prevent and minimize workplace exposures. Resources to help establish a safety and health program are available; examples include the Veterinary Safety Manual developed by the American Veterinary Medical Association Professional Liability Insurance Trust (AVMA PLIT) and the American Animal Hospital Association's (AAHA's) safety products. If needed, an industrial hygienist or other occupational safety and health professional can provide consultation on identifying and controlling workplace hazards.
NIOSH Hierarchy of Controls in Veterinary Medicine
Controlling exposures to occupational hazards is the fundamental method to protect workers from hazards in the workplace. Applying the hierarchy of controls developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) helps determine the most feasible and effective control solutions. The control methods at the top of the hierarchy—elimination and substitution—are the most effective at minimizing hazards; however, these options may not be possible in some situations. Engineering controls are more effective than administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE) for controlling existing worker exposures; they remove the hazard at the source. Administrative controls and PPE are frequently used with existing processes, where hazards may not be particularly well controlled. PPE should always be worn when other controls cannot effectively decrease exposures.