Editor’s Note: There was an editing error in the print article in a quote from Dr. Roberta Dwyer that has been corrected in this edition. We apologize for the error.
You have yellow A-frame signs to urge caution when navigating a wet floor, emergency exit signs in case of fire and common-sense training programs for working around horses. On the surface, it appears your practice is hazard-aware. However, an area of workplace safety that’s commonly overlooked is that of personal safety.
“I think, in general, veterinarians consider workplace violence as: ‘It happens to someone else, not me.’ That is, unless something has happened to them or someone close to them, and they decide to take some proactive measures,” said Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS, DACVPM, of the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky. Dwyer has taken and taught numerous personal safety courses in her career.
Violence, robbery and harassment are real veterinary profession hazards, especially today when the majority of young veterinarians are women. Bad things can take place in the office as well as out on the road. Equine vets often travel alone, carry expensive pharmaceuticals and equipment, practice in rural areas, and keep early and late hours, all of which makes them more vulnerable to personal safety threats than the average 9-to-5 employee working in an office.
Here are some tips to help make the veterinarians and employees in your practice more aware and prepared to deal with personal-safety issues in the office and on the road.
Secure Your Space
Few know the security threats in your area like your local police force.
“My advice is to have practice owners request a visit from their local police department to conduct a safety survey of the building,” Dwyer suggested. “They can make specific recommendations customized for that practice and locale.”
During this visit, an officer will point out areas that can be strengthened. These might include additional security features on doors, mirrors in hallway blind spots, or changes in lighting or landscaping.
Consider working with a safety consultant to review your facilities, policies and procedures. For example, how difficult would it be for someone to walk up to your clinic at night and get into the barn, which often is “manned” by female techs and veterinarians? If you’re building a new facility, adding on to your practice or changing your parking accommodations, bring in a safety professional during the design phase for input on safety hazards. You might change your mind about the placement of the pharmacy, the types of locks and lighting you install, or your surveillance and alarm system selections.
You also can obtain this type of information from the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design program. You can find a CPTED practitioner through the International CPTED Association at www.cpted.net.
Create Multiple Lines of Communication
Most people are so reliant on their mobile phones that when service is not available, it’s a real handicap. When you are driving to farms in remote areas, cell phone signals are often unavailable, and during major service outages, there’s no hope for a signal from a cell tower. Keep in mind that cell phones aren’t the only communication option.
“In a severe ice storm in Kentucky several years ago (no cell service, no landline phone service, no electricity, no ham radio available), one person used their automobile OnStar system to make an emergency call for services,” Dwyer said.
A communication center in a vehicle, such as OnStar, might have better service coverage in your area, particularly during a major cell phone service disruption. Going to the old-fashioned CB radio—citizens band radios are still used in the trucking industry and by many private citizens—can keep traveling veterinarians in touch with what’s happening around them and give them another communication source. (Make sure if you put CB radios in your practice vehicles that you take time to learn how to use one properly.)
Check in Every Time
When you go on a long drive, a loved one might ask you to let him or her know when you arrive. This is a good policy for veterinarians, too.
“Communications planning is very often overlooked. Ideally, someone at the office should know where a field-based professional will be and at what times,” said Larry Kaminer, founder of the Personal Safety Group in Seattle. This already takes place somewhat, as doctors usually check in after appointments to see if anything has changed with their schedules. It’s good policy to check in upon arrival as well as when leaving each farm visit.
To take it one step further, “Establish a distress-code phrase that would let your check-in partner at the office know you are in a difficult situation, should the need arise,” Kaminer continued.
Know Where You’re Going
GPS is a great tool until it stops working, loses signal, runs out of battery or takes you to the wrong place—which happens a lot in rural areas. “Always print the directions to the destination as a backup to GPS. If visiting a rural area that GPS does not cover, be sure to call the client and get good directions,” Kaminer said.
Pre-GPS, vets got to farm calls just fine with maps and written directions. Keep an updated map in each vehicle.
It might not be a good idea to send a veterinarian out alone on farm calls to new clients. Keep records of the people you work with at each farm so that if a vet arrives at the property of an existing client and something seems amiss, he or she can double-check identities before proceeding with the appointment.
Come and Go with Care
With all-hours emergencies and overnight clinic patients a reality of life, no doubt there are veterinarians, techs and other staff coming and going from the hospital all the time, and often by themselves. This is a potentially vulnerable situation, but the dangers can be lessened with planning and awareness.
Keep the parking lot well lit and remove landscaping elements around doors; these could offer a hiding place for a person with bad intent. When walking between the clinic and parking lot, “Walk with a purposeful stride, and spend as little time as possible in or around the vehicle. Scan your surroundings and project an alert and ‘heads-up’ image,” Kaminer suggested.
Once inside the clinic, keep shades drawn at night in offices and pharmacies. There’s no need to alert everyone outside that just one person is in the clinic. While impossible in barns, you can have locking barn doors so unwanted persons can’t gain access.
Just like having a check-in person for appointments, have one person designated for early arrivals, late closers and emergency appointments. That way a member of the team knows who should be in the building or on the road.
Be Discreet on the Road
It’s not hard to pick out an ambulatory vet when the “box” is on the back of the truck. And glancing in the window of an SUV can quickly tip off someone that drugs and valuables are within reach. Keep equipment and drugs locked in the storage compartment of the vehicle when they’re not being used.
Don’t let others know what you’re carrying. Keep the drug compartment locked at all times when it’s closed; that means you don’t just run in to grab a quick lunch and leave it unlocked! Mark your equipment with permanent identification and have a sign in the vehicle window signifying that equipment can be traced.
You don’t want to think something negative can happen while you’re on a farm call, but equipment and supplies can go missing there, too. Take careful inventory at the beginning and end of each day and don’t leave your supplies wide open and unattended.
Also be aware of the personnel dynamics on the farm as you drive in. If you arrive in the middle of an argument between two farm employees, feel free to remain in your vehicle until you ascertain whether the situation is becoming violent.
Carry Little Cash
Never mind the expensive pharmaceuticals and equipment in the vet truck, cash itself is motivation enough to target you for crime. Encourage farm call clients to settle their bills with the office directly rather than through the veterinarian (unless with a phone credit-card reader or by check). Post a sticker on the truck window that states cash is not carried in the vehicle.
If your clinic does cash transactions, get a drop safe in the office so you never have an abundance of accessible money. Make deposits daily. Post a small sign signifying this in your clinic window.
Reduce Violence Risks
Violence in the workplace is real. In a workplace such as a vet clinic that tends to run high on stress and can involve the emotions of outsiders, violent acts aren’t out of the question.
Provide the resources that staff members need to cope with work and life stress, offer a human resources system that helps to work out issues between employees, and encourage healthy work-life balance to reduce discord and the likelihood of outbursts and violence at work.
Preventing violence and outbursts from non-employees—be they partners of employees, clients or strangers—is more complicated. Train farm call and front desk staff to recognize the signs of an irritated person and how to alleviate the risks this person poses to himself and staff members. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has information about reducing workplace violence and employers’ responsibilities to do so; go to cdc.gov and search for “occupational violence.”
Follow Your Gut
Encourage everyone to honor his or her instincts. That funny “gut feeling” is there for a reason. It’s better to look silly making a phone call for guidance or changing your plans based on a feeling than it is to put yourself in a negative situation when your intuition was telling you otherwise.
Dwyer also recommended that everyone read “Gift of Fear” by Galvin DeBecker, an acclaimed self-defense book about how to recognize when someone poses a threat to your safety.
You also can host a personal safety course for your staff and even your clients. Ask your local police department to recommend someone who teaches this type of course in your area.
Whether you allow concealed weapons on your property, in your clinic or in your practice vehicles is a personal decision. Understand the laws in your state that cover “conceal and carry” weapons before deciding you or your staff should be armed at work.
There’s no way to protect veterinarians and staff from every personal safety risk, but promoting awareness and having options determined ahead of time can help. Know what’s required of you as an employer, and give your staff the best information you can to keep everyone safe. And remember: Money, drugs and equipment can be replaced, but you can’t!