In my last post, I looked at the dangers that vets face. Today I’d like to explore the question of whether this could be avoided.
It may sound totally unrelated, but I’m going to start by talking about the water company I work for – there is a point to this I promise. Our treatment works feature a lot of serious hazards, including raw sewage (contamination risk), deep, cold and/or aerated water (it’s not dense enough to let you float, so there’s no chance of swimming out), chlorine gas (as used as a weapon in WW2) and even seriously nasty substances like hydrofluoric acid (which dissolves flesh and bone). Despite these hazards, accidents are avoided through proper health and safety practices, which everyone in the company has the power to enforce.
Okay, so “proper health and safety practices” sounds so boring and the people who enforce it could be over-cautious do-gooders. But people can, and do, die in this industry – only last year another water company tragically lost an employee after he received severe burns. That makes a pretty strong argument for the mantra “if a job can’t be done safely, don’t do it.”
My experiences of veterinary practice are limited, as a disclaimer, but I don’t think the sector has the same focus on health and safety that some other industries do. For example, to visit any operational site at work I have to wear a hard hat, hi-viz jacket and steel toed boots. I wear my hard hat just in case anything falls anywhere near my head. I’d argue that livestock vets are far more at risk of a head injury than I’ve been on most site visits. The BEVA study I mentioned in my last post says that 23% of vets’ worst-ever injuries were to the head; 7% resulted in unconsciousness. Think Ahead, a campaign to get people to wear helmets more consistently whilst handling horses, mention horribly sad cases of vets who have died from animal-inflicted head injuries.
I can’t begin to describe how scary that is – not just that anyone might die at work, but that it could be so easily prevented by a simple measure: putting on a hard hat. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act employers have a duty to protect their employees, and I’m surprised that many practices don’t provide helmets and insist that their staff wear them.
Head injuries are an obvious example, but I think there are other areas for safety improvements in veterinary practice too. Accidental exposure to drugs and x-rays springs to mind – in my three weeks of small animal experience, I’ve already been accidentally exposed to isofluorane. Proper use of physical and chemical restraints is another area I’ve seen mentioned online as having room for improvement. For people so versed in problem-solving and considering evidence, some vets seem to be ignoring an obvious solution to the issue of persistent cases of serious injury in the profession. If I can call out a sewage treatment operative who has worked on site man and boy for forgetting his protective gloves, then vets can definitely wise up and get themselves health and safety-savvy.
Update: I’ve found this article on Vet Futures which might be interesting further reading. It’s focussed on patient safety but follows the same theme of what the veterinary profession can learn about risk and safety from other industries.