Being a horse vet in the UK appears to carry the highest risk of injury of any civilian occupation in the UK, according to the results of the first ever survey on injuries within the profession. This study, commissioned by the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) and conducted by leading medical professionals at the Institute of Health and Wellbeing and the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Glasgow, has prompted BEVA to raise awareness of these risks within the equine industry and to look at ways of ways of making equine veterinary practice safer.

Previously, largely anecdotal information suggested that veterinary practitioners involved in equine work frequently sustain injuries as part of their work with horses, but the prevalence and type of injury have never been quantified in the UK.  It is widely thought that some vets have to give up equine work due to a work-related injury and whilst very occasionally fatalities have happened, these may be inconsistently documented.

Former President of BEVA, Keith Chandler, outlined further: “We were coming across reports that vets were being injured, often seriously and occasionally fatally, when dealing with their patients.  As a result, we commissioned this study to quantify and qualify the risks, which our members were facing whilst pursuing their professional career. It is a sad irony that some vets are being seriously injured in their efforts to protect the health of horses.”

A total of 620 equine vets completed a work-related injuries questionnaire between September and November 2013. The results of the study indicated that an equine vet could expect to sustain between seven and eight work-related injuries that impeded them from practicing, during a 30-year working life.  Data available from the Health and Safety Executive suggest that vets working in equine practice in the UK, thus sustain a very high number of injuries compared to other civilian occupations, including those working in the construction industry, prison service and the fire brigade.

Participants were asked to describe their worst-ever injury. Most were described as 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 hind limb (49%), followed by strike with a fore limb (11%), followed by crush injury (5%). Nearly a quarter of these reported injuries required hospital admission and notably, 7% resulted in loss of consciousness. 

Keith Chandler said: “We were shocked to discover the extent of the injuries sustained. 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-down for long periods, next to the patient.”

Thirty eight percent 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 of the injury.  Whilst the number of laypersons or handlers injured at the same time was low, Tim Parkin, vet and lead researcher, pointed out: “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.”

David Mountford, Chief Executive of BEVA continued: “The results are very concerning and justify a careful prospective scientific quantification of the risks.  In the short term, knowledge of these risks allows us to better inform all vets who work with horses.  In turn vets will be able to inform horse owners, horse-keepers and trainers of the risks, and this may provide justification for having trained assistance on-hand or the more extensive use of sedative drugs in practice, potentially reducing the risk of injury.”

The British Equine Veterinary Association will now look to work with the Health and Safety Executive, Veterinary Schools, large employers of vets in the UK and our members to help develop policies to mitigate the risk of serious injury for vets working with horses.” 

Link - Estimates of the number of injuries per 100,000 employed per year from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Table