OSHA and workers' comp: It's about money


It is always interesting to me how much health professionals complain about the intervention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)into their practices and the costs and inconveniences of compliance.

It is always interesting to me how much health professionals complain about the intervention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)into their practices and the costs and inconveniences of compliance.

Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD

Perhaps the resentment is more visceral than logical: the perception is that the nameless, faceless federal bureaucrats are invading the professional's office with mandates and requirements attached to a nagging threat of a visit from some type of government "enforcer."

The truth is, as long as we all put up our posters and label our bottles, and nobody leaves our office on a stretcher, we're probably going to be okay. We might be out of pocket a few bucks, but basically we'll keep practicing unscathed.

The only letter in the acronym OSHA that I have any problem with is "A." It always disturbs me on some philosophical level when any government opens up or expands the jurisdiction of some "administration."


On the other hand, as a lawyer and a veterinary practitioner, I'm all about "occupational safety and health." Why wouldn't I be? The lack of safety and health among employees is a cascading fountain of practice overhead expenses and management inconveniences.

Let's face it: It's hard enough to get some team members to show up on a regular basis when they haven't got any claim for a work-related injury. Good luck getting them to function consistently when they have an arguably valid claim of employment-connected medical problems.

As is the best approach in diagnosing a medical or surgical illness, we should try to be scientific in addressing the areas of the veterinary workplace that are most likely to create the reality of risk to, or the perception of, indifference toward employees. Genuine workplace risks in the animal hospital setting are not that difficult to identify, and the benefits to mitigating those risks are real. Controlling workplace injury has tremendous economic and "administrative" benefits. Let's explore those risk areas.

It certainly isn't any secret that one of the most fertile areas for potential worker injury and lost work time is animal bites. Believe me, you don't need OSHA to pressure you into taking active steps to avoid bites suffered by employees.

Bite wounds

All you really need to convince you is one good, solid bite inflicted upon a marginally motivated worker. It won't be hard to justify better safety planning after a few years of comp claims for recurring pain, stiffness, weakness and the corresponding specialist visits and missed work days. And don't forget the possible resulting depression and Prozac prescriptions (yours or theirs).

We don't need some agency to tell us that an employer focus on employee health is actually a matter of enlightened self-interest. You want your good staff members to remain uninjured and on the job. You want to keep your workers' compensation premiums manageable in a time of spiraling health care costs. And at the risk of sounding cynical, don't you really want the opportunity to discharge a lazy hire before he or she goes out on a comp-related injury? A significant workplace accident can place you into a lifetime relationship with a person you really wish you had never met.

You'll never get a flyer from OSHA on this, but any veterinary practice that is at all concerned with overhead costs needs to have, every six months, a mandatory lunchtime reminder lecture on the proper techniques for lifting big boxes and heavy dogs. Lifting injuries are among the most common in the animal hospital game, and they are certainly among the most costly. Improper bending and leaning causes countless doctor visits and missed work days in the United States every year.

Lifting injuries

Worse still, veterinarians throw open their wallets when they allow staffers to pick up heavy objects improperly. A significant back strain will put your really great technician in bed for a week. That same injury will send your worst technician to bed for a month now, and probably a week or two each month for the forseeable future. That unreliable receptionist you've been meaning to let go? His lifting injury will send him on a permanent total disability, courtesy of you and your insurer.

My generation used to believe that the term "ergonomic" was a Latin term meaning "cry-baby coworkers." I have since learned that it is a Latin expression meaning "possible savings."

Joint disease

The veterinary profession, like many medical careers, is very much a "standup" kind of business. After years of concrete floors and bad shoes, many individuals involved in animal care begin to pay a steep rise in terms of knee and hip arthritis, ankle pain, corns, bunions and a plethora of other ailments.

As employers, veterinarians can actually save themselves money and temporary staffing headaches by considering inexpensive "orthopedic enhancements" for the office.

Cushioned rubber mats for treatment and surgery areas can make a substantial difference in the amount of time staff members spend placing undue strain on knees and hips. Computer keyboards which force users into an appropriate carpal orientation are well worth the money. Also, I think receptionist chairs with lumbar support are well worth considering. If those folks won't sit up straight on their own, force them into it. A long-term slouching habit can develop into a long-term medical expense with the practice footing the bill.

Finally, this is an item of potential serious injury that can be prevented through the intervention of management.

Complications from falling

Falling injuries are frequently serious and almost always preventable. It is probably negligent for a practice to leave fall prevention in the hands of the rank and file staff. This is because almost no one uses common sense when trying to reach a top shelf or trying to find something on top of the kennels.

Consider the following free legal advice to all practice owners and office managers:

  • Owners: Buy whatever wide-base stepping stools and rubber-bottomed ladders your people need and make their availability known.

  • Office managers: Reprimand each and every offense you see of standing on chairs, counters and other objects which place your staff members in precarious leaning and reaching positions.

Who knows? You might be able to save enough in workers' compensation insurance premiums to pay for your OSHA compliance plan!

Dr. Allen is a partner in Associates in Veterinary Law, P.C., a law practice specializing in business and legal counsel for veterinarians and their families. He can be reached at www.veterinarylaw.com or call (607) 648-6113.

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