Q: For the last several months, my employer has expected me to take significant physical risks to get my work done. I work as a vet tech for a small practice. Several of our customers bring in highly agitated, barely trained wolf/hybrids, mastiffs and pit bulls. The receptionist makes sure their owners take them right into individual rooms. It is up to us, the technicians, to “intake” the animals. When the veterinarians come in, they have the benefit of the animals having been calmed down and our being there as a second person in the room if the vets need us.
It’s my first professional job. I want to be successful in it and to be a team player. I don’t want to be a complainer, but some things worry me. The veterinarians here have been vaccinated for rabies, but we technicians, who do most of the actual animal handling, haven’t. Our clinic lacks a formal safety policy.
There also isn’t any information about what to do in case one of us get injured. Last month, I got bitten by a small, wild animal that one of our customers brought in and wanted us to check over because she planned to care for it until it could be released back into nature.
I asked the office manager what I should do if I’m injured at work. She acted as if it was simple and said, “If you get hurt, go to the doctor and have the bill sent to me.”
I talked to my parents and they talked to me about workers’ comp and OSHA. I now know OSHA exists but don’t really know what it does. My office manager didn’t mention anything about workers’ compensation. Am I eligible for worker's comp if I’m injured due to my own inexperience? What if I’m only a part-time worker? Do I have any rights? I don’t get health benefits and only a low salary.
A: You have rights, and responsibilities, as does your employer. An untrained animal entering a strange environment can act out in unpredictable ways. Your practice absolutely needs safety policies and protocols and to give you proper training to protect yourself and others.
According to Avitus Group Regional Safety Manager Stephen Kazimir, “Every employee working in the United States has the right to a safe working environment. If an employee gets hurt, and the employer lacks a safety protocol for known hazardous situations and their employees get hurt, the employer may be at fault. If documented training was given you and you get hurt, you may be at fault for not following procedures.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Standards Act (OSHA) protects U.S. workers in two ways. Employers are subject to OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that could cause serious physical harm. If you let your employer know you feel they’re asking you to take unreasonable risks and are fired as a result, you may have a potential grievance for retaliation under OSHA’s Whistleblower Act. Kazimir suggests you check out OSHA.gov and see if other vet clinics have asked OSHA for “letters of interpretation” covering situations similar to yours.
According to Kazimir, some employers do pay medical expenses for employees because they don’t know about workers’ compensation or because they are trying to avoid a workers’ comp claim because it impacts their annual premium.
Here are several suggestions. Ask your office manager whether she’ll cover you getting vaccinated for rabies and find out if your employer has workers ‘compensation insurance. According Rhonda Gerharz, Chief Investigator, Special Investigations Unit, Alaska Division of Workers’ Compensation, “Every employer in Alaska, is required to provide workers’ compensation insurance for every employee, whether full or part-time.” Even if your employer doesn’t yet have workers’ compensation insurance, you may be covered under a state workers’ compensation fund. I hope you and your employer can work together on this to make the workplace safe for you and others.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated for clarity regarding workers’ compensation insurence]