Communication and accommodation support healthy pregnancies and a positive return-to-work experience for veterinarians who are also new mothers.
Women now comprise 63% of the veterinary workforce. This means veterinary teams need to be aware of the unique considerations of their female staff during pregnancies, along with when they return to work after giving birth. For this article, I spoke with several pregnant veterinarians and technicians, as well as those who are just returning to work or have been back for a few months. I also spoke to practice managers and asked how they support a pregnant workforce.
WHEN TO “SHARE THE GOOD NEWS”
Understandably, many women are hesitant to share the news of their pregnancy during the first trimester, but this is also a critical time to protect the growing fetus from potential workplace hazards. So even if you are hesitant to officially share the good news, be
sure to keep in mind your exposure to things that are potentially harmful to the fetus in the first trimester.
• Much has been studied and written about the anesthetic agents we use, and in fact, this research led to a change in the type of agents routinely utilized in veterinary medicine.
• Common anesthetic agents, such as isoflurane, along with the high-quality scavenger systems of our anesthetic machines, make the surgery suite a much safer environment for all, including pregnant team members.
• OB/GYNs no longer recommend the use of bulky volatile chemical respirators in the surgical suite, claiming them to be unnecessary.
Many medications we routinely use come with precautions to wear gloves. Make sure you use pill counters when preparing a prescription, but also wear gloves. It is a simple precaution to take. If you are cutting pills or mixing powders, it is also a good idea to wear a mask to prevent inhalation of dust particles from the medications.
While we all should be wearing full chemo PPE when administering or assisting in the administration of chemotherapeutic agents (double gloves, long-sleeved fluid-resistant gowns, face shield and mask), it is highly recommended that, even with these precautions, women should forgo administering or assisting in the administration of chemotherapeutic
agents during pregnancy.
ANIMAL HANDLING, LIFTING AND RESTRAINT
Animal handling concerns arose in every interview I conducted. Be mindful when lifting patients, do not hesitate to ask for assistance, and use those wonderful lift tables.
Effective animal restraint is a serious concern for several reasons. It is critical that you have a proficient handler to protect you not only from bites, but also from being knocked over (yes, balance can be a little off during pregnancy). Also, as you progress in your
pregnancy, it may be harder for you to react and get out of the way. Pregnant women do not necessarily lose their athleticism, but reflexes may be a bit slower, their balance may not be as sharp as it was pre-pregnancy, and sometimes in that last trimester, especially as a woman nears her delivery date, it can be cumbersome to change positions from standing, kneeling, or squatting. It is essential to have good assistants who are proficient at restraint.
SLIPS AND FALLS
It is important to take extra care around slippery floors or icy stairs and parking lots. Even if a pregnant woman does not actually fall, slipping and stretching of the pubic symphysis is even more painful and will stay painful for the rest of the pregnancy.
Our radiology machines are safer than ever, and properly-worn PPE is good protection from any scatter. The general rule is to stay out of the room when radiographs are being taken, if you can, just to be extra safe. Be sure you are reviewing the dosimeter readings and that the machines are being carefully monitored and certified for the best level of protection from ionizing radiation.
STANDING, BREAKS, AND ANTI-FATIGUE MATS
Another change that many women make during pregnancy involves how much time they spend standing. For example, pregnant veterinarians in spay and neuter clinics may adjust their time standing, make sure to take more breaks, and use anti-fatigue mats. These are good self-care reminders for all of us, pregnant or not.
CONSIDERATIONS WHEN RETURNING TO WORK
The primary concern moms had upon returning to work was having a clean and private place to pump breast milk. Sounds reasonable, right? The Department of Labor thinks so too.
Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) General Requirements states that all employers are required to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.”
Employers are also required to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, which is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” (US Department of Labor. Fact Sheet #73: Breaktime for nursing mothers under the FLSA. April 2018. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fact-sheets/73-flsa-break-time-nursing-mothers).
This area should have restricted access while the mother is using it. Remember, it needs to be a place other than the bathroom.
During my VetOSHA clinic inspections, as part of our compliance management services, I am thrilled to see the many wonderful spaces that clinics have created for their nursing moms. Practice managers report that taking special care in providing a place to pump breast milk is very rewarding. Providing a comfortable and private space for nursing moms
not only shows respect, but also demonstrates that every employee is valued and cherished. Practices can support new moms by making them comfortable during the transition period from staying at home with the new baby to returning to work.
SUPPORTING THE POSTPARTUM MOM’S MENTAL HEALTH
Many of the moms I spoke with also talked about emotions, not only during pregnancy but
also upon returning to work after maternity leave. Pregnancy and birth cause intense hormonal fluctuations. This along with the newness of being pregnant, giving birth, and then having to leave the baby in another’s care to return to work, can cause widely fluctuating moods and reactions.
These moms mentioned the importance of having the veterinary team cut them a little
slack, to understand these mood changes, and to know that emotionality can be a part
of the pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experience. Patience and understanding from
team members are much appreciated.
ADVICE FROM PRACTICE MANAGERS
Inform: Let practice managers know of your pregnancy as soon as possible, so that a plan can be implemented to provide a safe work environment for mom and baby.
Communicate: Let practice managers know what you feel safe doing while pregnant, and determine what accommodations need to be made. Keep communicating throughout the pregnancy, as these parameters are likely to change as the pregnancy progresses.
Identify hazards: Discuss hazards with practice managers. While it is the veterinarian’s
responsibility to know about workplace hazards, practice managers might be able to share additional information about which medications should not be handled and which cleaners to avoid.
Document: Practice managers should provide an outline of these discussions and have the
veterinarian sign and date the document, acknowledging that the topics have been addressed. Also, they should encourage an open-door policy to which pregnant veterinarians can bring any concerns that may arise.
EMPHASIZE COMMUNICATION AND DOCUMENTATION
The best practice is to always make sure you are communicating with management and that all meetings and accommodations are well documented.
All the practice managers interviewed recommended that pregnant employees communicate clearly with their OB/Doula to make sure the latter are aware of the type of work they do, and to see if they have any special recommendations or precautions they want the pregnant women to take.
Working while pregnant is a common and empowering time for mothers-to-be. Communication, documentation, and accommodation all support healthy pregnancies and a positive return-to-work experience for our valued colleagues.
So keep in mind these few points and recommendations, and enjoy your pregnancy. We all look forward to welcoming these new little ones into the veterinary family!