January 9, 2023

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Vet safety

Vetting the vets – can a new study help the sector get the right treatment?

A culture of stoicism has skewed the reporting of accidents in the veterinary profession. However, with a new study on safety attitudes on the horizon can the sector become more transparent in its HS shortcomings. SHP Editor Mark Glover finds out. 

CREDIT: Daniel Quiceno/Unsplash

The following are comments made by members of the veterinary profession after accidents at work: “I think it was fractured but I just got on with it,” said one. “I was knocked unconscious but that afternoon I was back out on my rounds,” said another. The environment isn’t a construction site or manufacturing floor. The injuries are sustained by vets in their workplaces which range from high street practices to farms and stables. It’s an issue that the sector has been grappling with for some time.

“Those working within the veterinary industry often put the health, safety and welfare of their patients above their own and the balance needs to be reset. There appears to be some similarities with how the construction industry operated 30 years ago. Health and Safety is often reactive rather than proactive,” explains Rebecca Jackson Head of Health and Safety at CVS (UK) Ltd., one of the largest veterinary services providers in the UK. “I’d very much like to see veterinary professionals caring about their own health and safety as much as they do about the patients they care for.”

Unlike the medical sector which strictly adheres to procedures managing the risks from exposed needles, and other risks, the veterinary sector seems to operate from a place of stoicism, adopting a ‘just get on with it’ attitude with workers almost accepting that injuries from animals, sprains, breaks or cuts are simply part of the job.

True extent

Next year findings from a study canvassing safety attitudes among the UK profession will be revealed and are expected to reveal the true extent of the issue.

The research was led by Dr John Tulloch, a Lecturer in Veterinary Public Health at the University of Liverpool, and funded by CVS Group through their Clinical Research Awards Programme, whose 700 plus employees made up the survey sample.

Before a career in academia, Tulloch worked in livestock practice and was involved in an accident while tending to a cow in labour. In fact, the words describing being knocked unconscious are his. He expands on the episode: “I was calving a cow by myself in the middle of the night which collapsed and the calving jack (a large metal tool to help calve a cow) swung round and knocked me unconscious,” he recalls. “I was laid out in a pen, which held several other cattle, for an unknown time. I came round and called colleagues for help but was unable to get hold of anyone. A neighbour chauffeured me for the rest of my visits that night that I still needed to complete.”

He says that after explaining to colleagues what happened, the incident was almost laughed off, dismissed as something that was part of the role. His suggestion that he should perhaps seek at least a medical check-up was discouraged.

This is a snapshot but it’s likely that this culture of non-reporting is common within the sector and will be backed up by this new research. Dr Tulloch also led a previous study published in June, that sought to audit animal-related injuries at UK veterinary schools over the period 2009-2018. The research recorded an annual rate of 2.60 injuries per 100 graduating students, with cats and dogs the most common reason, while injuries associated with cattle and horses, the most severe requiring hospital attention and time off work taken.

However, as data was based on reported injuries, the true scale of the injury rate was probably underestimated. The study noted that “injuries were more frequently recorded in staff than students, and there were significant differences between staff and students in the activities performed preceding injury”, and concluded: “Further research is recommended to explore the clinical and workplace management, including recording culture, of animal-related injuries among veterinary professionals.”

Worrying disconnect

There seems to be a worrying disconnect between what safety is taught during training and its actual implementation in the workplace. At the moment, for example, the use of hard hats by those working with equines is cited as guidance within some veterinary groups. However, graduates who don such PPE on their first day are often given short shrift by more experienced colleagues or even clients who, culturally, have never felt it appropriate to wear one.

Other potential factors are issues around mental health and workplace wellbeing. The increase in pet ownership during the pandemic added extra pressure to vets already struggling with high work demands. Vetlife, a charity set up to support the community, reported a 25% increase in calls during 2020. Despite the sector’s efforts to bring more awareness to the issue, it still remains a problem, but one that doesn’t differentiate from other verticals: a construction worker under pressure from their boss to get a job done is likely to have an accident at work – the theory applies here too.

Turning point?

Dr Tulloch hopes his forthcoming research will be a turning point for the sector and indeed the next phase of the project is to use the results to produce resources for the industry to assist in accident reduction. “I would like our profession to acknowledge the hazards within our work and take appropriate action to minimise these risks, rather than just turning serious injuries into a good pub story.” he says. “We must change work practices to encourage and allow people to take appropriate time off work so that individuals do not feel the need to just ‘get on with it’.”

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