Being a horse vet appears to carry the highest risk of injury of any civilian occupation in the UK, higher than the fire and prison services.

That’s one finding of the first survey on injuries in the profession, which was commissioned by the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) and conducted by the Institute of Health and Wellbeing and the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Glasgow.

Largely anecdotal information had suggested vets involved in equine work were frequently injured as part of their work, but the prevalence and type of injury had never been quantified in the UK. 

It is widely thought some vets have had to give up equine work due to a work-related injury and while, very occasionally, fatalities have happened, these may have been inconsistently documented.

Data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggest equine vets suffer a very high number of injuries compared to other civilian occupations, including those in the construction industry, prison service and the fire service.

Former BEVA president Keith Chandler said: “It is a sad irony some vets are being seriously injured in their efforts to protect the health of horses.”

Now BEVA intends to work with the HSE, veterinary schools, large employers of vets in the UK and its own members to develop policies to mitigate the risk of serious injury for vets working with horses.

A total of 620 equine vets took part in the survey between September and November last year. The results indicated an equine vet could expect to sustain seven or eight work-related injuries that impeded them from practising during a 30-year working life.

Participants were asked to describe their worst injury. Most were bruising, fracture and laceration, with the most common site of injury being the leg (29%), followed by the head (23%). The main cause of injury was a kick with a hindlimb (49%), followed by strike with a forelimb (11%), followed by crush injury (5%). Nearly a quarter of these reported injuries required hospital admission and, notably, 7% resulted in loss of consciousness.

Mr Chandler said: “Of greatest concern is the number of vets who suffered head injuries and unconsciousness.

“These injuries appeared to be more common when certain procedures were being performed, such as endoscopy of the upper respiratory tract, when vets are often only partly sighted while using examination equipment, or during wound management and bandage changes, where vets are often crouched for long periods, next to the patient.”

More than a third of the worst injuries occurred when the vet was working with a “pleasure” horse and most frequently (48% of all responses) the horse handler was the owner or the client at the time. 

While the number of laypersons or handlers injured at the same time was low, vet and lead researcher Tim Parkin said: “This work should act as a wake-up call to all involved in the training, employment and engagement of equine vets.

“The risks associated with handling and working with horses should be the primary consideration for equine vets and horses owners alike, every time a horse is examined or treated. In addition, the experience of the horse handler should be considered when undertaking riskier procedures.”

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