The price of pain
NATIONAL REPORT — On-the-job injuries cost practices big money — maybe up to $24 million per year — and insurers are watching closely as to whether the economy will force more clinics into reporting injuries they previously might have handled under the table.
"We're really interested in seeing effects of economy," says Mike Ahlert, executive vice president of Hub International. "For the past year, we have not seen significant change in the frequency or severity of workers' compensation claims. We would expect in a bad economy that we would see more people turning in claims that they normally wouldn't."
Groups like Hub International, insurance broker for Professional Liability Insurance Trust (PLIT) and manager of the American Animal Hospital Association's (AAHA) Business Insurance Program, are watching whether the economy might bring changes to the cost of workplace injuries, but it may just be too soon to tell if the recession will cost practice owners more, Ahlert adds."The numbers right now are really green. From the time something is reported to being paid takes some time," Ahlert says. "But the numbers we've seen so far are really not sending up any red flags. We'll continue to watch it."
But the fact is most veterinarians over the course of their careers will be bitten, scratched, kicked, crushed, stuck with a needle or suffer from a host of orthopedic problems. And these injuries cost practice owners a lot — about $8.3 million just for the roughly one-quarter of practices in the United States that submit workers' compensation claims through the American Veterinary Medical Association's PLIT. Take into account that there are about 22,000 practices nationwide and only about 6,000 are PLIT members, and the total cost of injuries in the veterinary practice could exceed $24 million.
"I think it's a pretty representative sampling," Ahlert says.
Work-related injuries occur about every nine seconds, according to AAHA, and statistics from Hub International and other veterinary watchdogs spell out the obvious risks that practices would be well-advised to address before injuries occur.
Common sense might tell practice owners that their employees are at risk of injury from aggressive, scared or otherwise unpredictable animals.
A study by Hub International of 4,500 workers' compensation claims at veterinary practices from 2002 to 2004 indicated that about 90 percent of injuries were from bites — 53 percent of those from cats and 43 percent from dogs. Arms and hands were injured in 77 percent of all dog and cat bite cases. Fifty-one percent of injuries reported to PLIT came from cats, which accounted for 56 percent of bites and 86 percent of scratches. Cat scratch claims alone account for 4.4 percent of all workers' compensation injuries with an average loss of $802 per claim.
Only about 47 percent of dogs and cats identified with aggressive or fearful warning signs were muzzled compared with 12 to 14 percent of animals not showing warning signs prior to attack, according to a 2006 injury prevention study prepared by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, and 3 to 18 percent of all dog and 28 percent to 80 percent of all cat bites became infected.
The average loss from dog-related injuries as far as workers' compensation claims from 2006 to 2008 was nearly $1,500, while cat-related injuries resulted in about $1,200 in loss. Aside from bites, dog-related injuries accounted for 40 percent of all workers' compensation injury claims, according to data from Hub International.
Though most of the statistics collected center on small-animal medicine, large-animal practitioners have their own problems. Injuries from kicks — all from horses — represented only 0.3 percent of claim injuries, but average loss from those injuries was nearly $9,900.
Cows inflict the most veterinary injuries with 46.5 percent, followed by dogs with 24.2 percent and horses with 15.2 percent, according to a 1988 study in the Journal of Trauma. Those injuries were most frequently from animal kicks (35.5 percent), followed by bites (34 percent), crushing (11.7 percent), scratches (3.8 percent) and unspecified injuries (14.9 percent). Seventeen percent of veterinarians injured on the job in a study of AVMA members in Minnesota and Wisconsin indicated that 17 percent were hospitalized over the course of a year, and about a quarter required surgical intervention. Four percent, however, treated their own fractures and dislocations, 20 percent performed their own sutures and about 7 percent administered antibiotics to themselves, according to the study.
More experience doesn't mean fewer injuries, either. Thirty-one percent of injuries were reported by employees with less than one year of experience, but 42 percent were reported by workers with one to three years of experience.
Technicians and assistants are most frequently injured, followed by veterinarians, receptionists and kennel workers. Predictably, the majority of worker injuries were experienced by employees not wearing protective gear.
But not all injuries are restricted to office hours. Hub International reports that 20 percent of all veterinary clinic claims came from injuries sustained after hours. Most office hour injuries occurred in treatment room or kennel areas during routine examinations, diagnostics or retrieval of animals from cages.
Not all workers' compensation claims from veterinary practices involve animals, but most do. Seventy percent of claims processed for PLIT members in 2006 were caused by exposure to or contact with animals, Hub International reports. Those claims resulted in $4.2 million in losses, according to Hub, which put the total claims for 2006 at 3,434 claims equaling nearly $8.3 million for the roughly 4,500 veterinary hospitals it represented at the time of the study. That puts the average employee injury cost at $2,408, not including lost productivity, lower levels of patient care and workplace disruption.