Staying safe amid mobile mayhem

Staying safe amid mobile mayhem

Stress, fatigue, disenfranchisement, faulty machines and chemicals pose serious occupational hazards for large animal practitioners
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Nov 01, 2005



It's 10:30 a.m. and the "lameness exam" that your secretary had allotted 35 minutes for turned into a headshaking horse that took more than an hour to start to work up properly. Add to the fact that you forgot you had promised to castrate the new barn cat the next time you were at this farm. There are nine missed cell phone calls by the time you get in the truck, and in addition to the add-ons that now have to be worked in somewhere in the day, the one forgotten radiograph that you really needed shows motion and will need to be taken again. You run your hands through your hair, if you still have any, and think: "This job is killing me!"

Even though veterinarians traditionally report high job satisfaction, we all have been overwhelmed at some point. But so has every short-order cook, accountant, sheet metal worker, farmer or waitress. We've all felt like our jobs were killing us. But are they really? And exactly how?

Apart from the occasionally overbooked day and the general difficulties of running any business, what are the health risks of working around horses and cattle, and exactly what kills veterinary practitioners?

More than 20 years ago, as part of a class in epidemiology, veterinary students at the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine were treated to a lecture on how they would most likely die. Being young and healthy and naive at the time, it is doubtful that much of what they were told registered. Learning that their predecessors occasionally had suffered from radiation poisoning from old, faulty X-ray machines that were still likely to be found in some practices, or talk of the use of organophosphate pesticides for deworming might lead to significantly more cases of Parkinson's disease probably did not concern these eager soon-to-be practitioners. It has long been said that youth is wasted on the young. Apparently, so are mortality statistics. But some good information does exist concerning the health/life risks faced by veterinarians; these risks have changes somewhat over the last two decades, and a look at what might kill you might just keep you alive and kicking, or at least dodging kicks.

Cancer is always a concern when occupational health risks are discussed because veterinarians are commonly exposed to any number of potential cancer-causing agents. In an article on cancer in veterinarians, Lisa Fritschi of the Department of Epidemiology and Preventative Medicine at Monosh University in Australia, wrote: "Veterinarians come into contact with several potentially carcinogenic exposures in the course of their occupation. These exposures include radiation, anesthetic gases, pesticides and insecticides and zoonotic organisms."


Animal-related injuries are common among both large and small animal clinicians. Injuries to the hands and arms are the most common, but every practitioner has been stepped on at some point. The second photo is a thermography scan of this unlucky veterinarian’s foot showing the tissue damage and inflammation as a result of contact with a hoof. (The greater white area in the thermograph indicate tissue damage and inflammation.)
Statistics compiled in California during a 32-year period ending in 1992 showed veterinarians had a significantly higher percentage of melanoma and cancer of the large intestine compared to the general population. Another study of more than 5,000 veterinarians showed increased cancer of the lymphatic and hematopoietic systems, colon, brain and skin. These researchers concluded that equine and other large animal practitioners experienced increased sunlight exposure in their careers causing a heightened chance of developing melanomas, and exposure to ionizing radiation caused an increase in cases of leukemia.

Drs. Wiggins, Schercher, Green and Samulus of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of California-Davis, noted in research published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, that 41 percent of the veterinarians in their study reported not wearing badges when taking radiographs. The number of equine veterinarians who take radiographs without proper protective aprons and gloves is unknown, but researchers point to the high leukemia statistics and feel that this is an area where practitioners can help themselves stay healthy by simply following standard radiology safety suggestions.