Explore the pandemic’s effects on regulatory control programs; OSHA compliance issues unique to veterinary medicine; and the agency’s role in veterinary mental health.
Over the past two years, we have fought diligently to keep our practices open through the COVID-19 pandemic. We struggled to keep our patients healthy and our clients happy. We worked hard to find a balance between ensuring our employees’ safety, earning a living, and keeping ourselves and our families healthy. Who could have guessed that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) would turn out to be a valued partner during this difficult time?
OSHA is usually seen as that big, ever-looming government agency with thousands of pages of regulations written in somewhat unintelligible legalese. These regulations are often not applicable to our practices, yet it is up to us to decipher how they apply to us, and then make sure we follow them.
OSHA inspectors can arrive unannounced, and they have a mandate to fine us for any infraction they can find, even if we immediately correct it. OSHA’s role in workplace safety used to be one of partnering with employers to help them figure out exactly how to comply with the law. Their stated goal was employee safety. Then, OSHA became that dreaded agency whose informative capability came with big fines.
ONCE MORE A TRUSTED PARTNER
But things have changed again during these days of COVID-19. We once more saw a caring and informative partner who helped us figure out the maze of keeping our doors open and employees safe, in the middle of an unprecedented and overwhelming pandemic.
The surprise visits no longer happened. Rather, when OSHA received a complaint about a clinic, usually from an employee worried that there were not enough safeguards in place to protect them from COVID at work, OSHA would send an email (followed up with a letter) and make a phone call. They would state what the complaint was and ask for a copy of the clinic’s COVID protocols. They would then offer some guidance as needed, providing information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on recommendations about how to stay healthy while remaining open, caring for our patients, and dealing with our clients.
And best of all there were no fines — just help and encouragement.
How did this happen? What caused OSHA to become the more benevolent government partner they used to be? The simple answer is that, like the rest of us, they were trying to figure out how to keep the doors open and the lights on while surviving a deadly pandemic.
BALANCING SERVICE AND SAFETY
Keeping our doors open in order to continue seeing patients, as well as educating the public, brought up the very real concern of how to do this safely, while also protecting the health and well-being of our employees. This is, after all, OSHA’s primary goal — to ensure that employers provide a safe and healthy work environment for all employees.
The fact that OSHA understood the nature of veterinary work, and that our original purpose is public health, was an amazing relief. OSHA listened and worked with us to determine exactly how we could continue to care for animals, and thus fulfill our public health responsibilities. We were therefore able to develop a plan of action that addressed all phases of our practices, address different concerns for different types of practice, and help OSHA understand that each had unique needs. We were then able to work with the agency to look at the needs specific to: Emergency and specialty practices, Small animal practices, Farm animal practices, Mobile practices.
Working diligently with OSHA, we addressed how we would balance seeing and treating our patients, and dealing with our clients, to provide the high quality medicine we were used to providing while keeping our employees safe and healthy. Added to the equation were the outside forces that affected every decision we made.
Workplace safety practices such as limiting clinic client access (curbside) and house/farm calls, and changes to our masking and disinfecting protocols, were the first things we did to attempt to maintain this balance.
When COVID began to hit our staff, we then had to incorporate protocols for handling exposure, quarantine, time off, and dealing with staff shortages.
OSHA AND MENTAL HEALTH
Tempers flared as people’s fears mounted, and concern for family members rose with each exposure. As human hospitals filled up, so too did it seem that veterinary professionals were seeing more patients. Stress levels hit a high point when many left the profession due to illness, the need to stay home to care for family members, or from job burnout.
It was at this juncture that we developed a new relationship with OSHA. The agency has always been concerned with issues such as workplace violence, bullying, and sexual harassment, but the pandemic brought increased concern about the general state of mental health and well-being in employees. As we moved away from just the concept of compassion fatigue in veterinary medicine, even as it remains a valid concern, to what we now understand to be burnout from being overstretched, asked to do too much with too few resources (think short-staffing), we realized that this burnout, this physical, emotional, and mental fatigue, had also become a topic of interest to OSHA. In fact, the agency decided that the summer months of 2021 would be dedicated to Mental Health Awareness.
The tragedies the pandemic brought about reminded us that teamwork is essential. OSHA encouraged workplace teams to have open discussions about the mental health and well-being of their members, and prompted employers to utilize the wellness plans their insurance companies offered and to take advantage of community resources for mental health support. Companies and workplaces across the country instituted great team-building and appreciation events and activities.
By working with OSHA, and with the CDC and the Department of Labor (DOL), we also developed a plan to come out of this pandemic with a renewed sense of commitment, not just to our patients and clients, but also to each other. OSHA partnered with the CDC to bring attention to mental health and to provide the tools and resources we need to help make self-care and care for each other important topics in the workplace. We became more resourceful and empathetic. There was a sense of having survived a horrendous event together, and now we were here to support each other through the post-traumatic stress resulting from the pandemic. Empathy and mental health awareness have taken on a whole new importance in our everyday work life, and have found a permanent place in our commitment to help each other through tough times. The concept of work and play balance has become paramount.
These last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been life-changing in so many ways. They have brought much isolation and exacerbated mental health issues. They have also changed what we are willing to accept in life, and helped us understand that there can and must be a better balance to work and play.
They also brought us back an old friend, a benevolent partnership with OSHA. While the agency will still fine us for infractions such as inadequate staff training, improper labeling of secondary containers, and other safety violations, the pandemic has brought us all to a different place, a different understanding. We understand that our work, as veterinary medical providers, is essential; our work as educators is essential; and that teamwork also includes kindness and empathy for one other. And that is good.
Visit www.VetOSHA.com to learn more.
Dr. Chery F. Kendrick is the owner of VetOSHA and The Veterinary Learning Center. She is an active speaker on numerous topics including regulatory control as well as life and work balance. She makes her home in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. with her cattle dog, Aggy. Nature and teaching make her complete.