The clinic cat may be sweet, but she's also a safety hazard.
We love animals, so it's no surprise that many veterinary hospitals let team members bring their pets to work. Likewise, many practices have clinic pets or mascots—well-behaved cats or dogs that have been adopted by the whole team. These situations aren't dangerous, and OSHA doesn't have any regulations prohibiting such activities. But if these hospital pets are allowed to roam freely in the building, they can cause problems. Here are a few to think about:
An animal lying in the wrong place at the wrong time is a caterwauling or barking land mine just waiting to go off. If people are walking and don't see the pet, they can trip and hurt it or themselves. OSHA does require businesses to keep aisles and passages free of obstructions—and this would include the furry kind.
The hospital cat may not be afraid of the big dogs in the waiting room—in fact, she may be eager to make friends with them—but sometimes dogs view "catch the kitty" as a game they're destined to win. If a staff member is restraining a dog for venipuncture and the patient catches sight of a roaming feline, you can imagine the situation getting hairy. Likewise, a team member's dog, while perfectly well-mannered, may still scare a cat in the treatment area and lead to a nastily scratched technician.
Illustration by Erin Terry
These days animals are integrated into our homes and lives, and that's a good thing. But the workplace is different from our homes. By introducing team members' pets into the hospital environment, we may be increasing our pets' exposure to patients' pathogens and vice versa. The other issue is hand washing. We rarely wash our hands often enough in our daily work in the hospital and even less so when we're dealing with our own pets. The old saying "Familiarity breeds contempt" may need to be changed to "Familiarity breeds carelessness." We might be used to washing our hands between patients, but not necessarily when we pet our own cat or dog that's roaming the clinic halls.
Roaming pets may make the clinic seem cozy, but their presence introduces another potential OSHA violation. If employees are allowed to eat and drink on the premises, OSHA requires that you keep the break room clear of biological and chemical hazards. A cat or a dog could be construed by an OSHA inspector as a carrier of unwanted organisms into that room. Again, the veterinary practice is not a home, and some activities aren't appropriate at work. You may think your boxer's drool is charming, but that doesn't mean your team member wants it in her coffee.
Finally, there are appearances to think about. Clients may be reluctant to patronize your hospital if they think that their pet feels threatened or that the rules don't apply to everyone. How do you explain that clients need to restrain their pets in the waiting room to prevent fights, aggression, marked walls, and disease transmission but the hospital or staff pets are allowed to roam free?
If you allow team members to bring pets to work, it's best for everyone if the pets are treated like any other visitor to the practice—either restrained or caged. If you have clinic mascots, restrict them to certain areas. At least keep them out of the break room (see No. 4). I know it's tough, but just because there's never been a problem at your clinic doesn't mean there never will be. Hospital cats and dogs have been known to run out the door and get hit by cars on occasion. Keep the clinic clean, and keep all pets safe.
Phil Seibert, CVT, is an author, speaker, and consultant with SafetyVet in Calhoun, Tenn. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org