There’s a lot of talk about the mental health issues faced by veterinarians—but what about the physical dangers? Zoe Meunier investigates
For Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) president Dr Robert Johnson, 6 March 2017 is a date “indelibly etched in my brain”. Asked to examine the injured tail of a wild eastern brown snake brought in by a snake catcher, what happened next was a lesson in the importance of having strict protocols in place within veterinary practices—not just to prevent things going wrong, but for when they inevitably do.
“I got bitten by a brown snake because I made a slight error of judgment; I got a bit too close,” says Dr Johnson. “Nonetheless, when it did happen, the snake handler and my nurse very quickly stepped into action. There are strict guidelines you follow for first aid: apply a pressure bandage, keep the limb immobile and stay immobile and calm until an ambulance arrives. Within 15 minutes of being bitten, I was in the emergency department of the local hospital.”
Despite feeling apprehensive—“you tend to feel a bit nervous after being bitten by arguably the second most poisonous snake in the world”—Dr Johnson did his best to stay calm as hospital protocols took over, under advisement from expert toxicologists. Although obliged to stay in hospital due to some kidney damage, Dr Johnson eventually made a full recovery. Nonetheless, his experience is proof that injuries can happen to the most experienced of veterinarians.
“Things can go wrong despite having protocols in place,” he says. “It’s really important to acknowledge that accidents do happen, but know what to do when they occur.”
Biting the hand that feeds you
According to Dr Rachel Chay, chief veterinarian at Greencross Vets, “bites and scratches are by far the most common workplace injury”—not surprising given the unpredictability of animal behaviour, particularly when frightened or under stress. This unpredictability can also lead to more serious injuries such as being stomped or kicked by a larger animal.
“Cat bites are pretty awful because they’re almost like an injection of bacteria under your skin,” says Dr Johnson. “In my own career, I’ve probably had a serious cat or dog bite every five to 10 years which is usually handled with antibiotics and rest.”
Whether through bites or scratches, needle stick injuries or other means, exposure to zoonotic diseases is a serious concern in the veterinary field. Notable in this area, of course, is the increasing prevalence of Hendra virus infection, which comes with its own stringent set of biosecurity, work health and safety, and infection control measures.
In terms of risk management of animal-related injuries and illnesses, Dr Johnson highlights the importance of correctly restraining animals.
“Clients enter my consulting room and as a reflex, take off their pet’s lead,” he says. “I’ll think, ‘Why did you do that? Just to irritate me?’ I’m the vet; I’m not here to hold on to your dog. We have a protocol in our practice that unless it’s an emergency, we always have a nurse in the consulting room to restrain dogs so both myself and the client are safe.”
He ain’t heavy, he’s my Boxer…
Musculoskeletal problems are also a common concern for vet professionals, generally brought about by a combination of improper lifting, standing still for long periods and poor posture.
“Things can go wrong despite having protocols in place. It’s really important to acknowledge that accidents do happen, but know what to do when they occur.”—Dr Robert Johnson, president, Australian Veterinary Association
“I needed hospitalisation about 20 years ago after hurting my back quite seriously lifting a dog—it took a while for me to get back to work,” recalls Dr Johnson. “There’s a lesson there in lifting because with small animal vets, you might be standing there immobile, operating on a dog for an hour and then, without any warm-up, what do you do? You help someone lift it into a cage, this intense physical activity where you could be lifting 20-30kg. I think these days, we’re a bit more aware of how to lift correctly, bending the knees and not the back, not lifting anything heavier than 15kg, that sort of thing.”
Dr Johnson also lists radiation or X-ray exposure as a potential “can of worms” in the vet industry. Exposure can lead to a number of injuries including burns and increased risk of cancers or genetic defects—while other chemical hazards, such as exposure to anaesthetic gases, hazardous drugs, insecticides and agricultural dust, are also significant threats.
“Even when you’re just decanting what might seem like harmless disinfectants, it is very important that you read the label, read the guidelines,” says Dr Johnson.
A ‘safe practice’ practice
Given the range of hazards and dangers at play in the veterinary workplace, Dr Johnson believes it should become standard practice to always have a first-aid qualified staff member on duty, “in the same way you’d have a fire warden or other OHS procedures in place”.
Dr Chay says that as one of Australia’s leading veterinary organisations, Greencross Vets have a robust set of protocols in place to ensure they’re providing the safest workplace possible for staff.
“We maintain a high standard of OH&S by ensuring all staff receive a proper induction including an OH&S policy, and that they adhere to OH&S policies and guidelines and report any incidents of workplace injury,” she says. “When workplace incidents are reported, we follow up with the team and assist in preventing further incidents. We also offer further resources or training if required.”
Dr Chay also recommends retraining veterinary staff every 12 months on important procedures such as correct handling and restraint of animals and proper lifting techniques. However, she adds, it’s also important for vets to look after themselves.
“Working in a veterinary clinic is a mentally and physically demanding job—keeping ourselves fit and healthy plays an important part in retaining physical and mental stamina and the ability to wrangle our patients.” she says. “It’s also important to put yourself first and never be afraid to reach out for help.”
Thinking back on his encounter with the eastern brown snake, Dr Johnson says he bears the reptile has no ill will. “Snakes bite instinctively as a defensive act and no snake can be blamed for biting anyone; that’s why we all just need to be really careful!”