LIVESTOCK HANDLING AND RISK ASSESSMENT During the recent Risk Assessment Workshops which took place in February, livestock handling on farms has reared its head (pardon the pun) as an area of concern. This is not surprising as it is arguably the most significant risk area in any veterinary practice due to: The size of the animals being treated – an animal the size of a cow or a bull can cause significant injuries to a person without actually being actively aggressive (i.e. accidental crush injuries, kicks), however an aggressive bull or cow would represent a significant risk. Lack of control of the working environment where animals are treated – farms vary greatly with regards both to standards of animal handling facilities (from excellent to nonexistent) and housekeeping. These two areas can have a huge impact on the level of safety, and neither will be under the control of the vet doing the work. The usual method of managing this risk is reliance on vet competence and ‘dynamic risk assessment’. Whilst these are both important aspects of any risk control process in a farming environment, they have flaws which means the level of protection provided to both the individual and the business is never as good as it is assumed to be. Competence Competence is an important aspect in any highly specialised work, such as being a vet. However, there are a number of reasons why reliance on competence can leave unacceptable gaps from a risk management perspective: Levels of competence can vary greatly from individual to individual (e.g. a newly qualified vet and a vet with 30 years’ experience) It can be difficult to assess and monitor competence accurately. Competent vets have just as serious accidents as incompetent vets. Competence can wain over time. Competence by itself will provide minimal protection from an aggressive animal. Dynamic Risk Assessment ‘Dynamic risk assessment’ can be described as a continuous process of identifying risk. In the context of veterinary farm work, it means the vet making their own assessment of the environment and work they are about to do and taking appropriate measures to protect themselves accordingly. The perceived benefits of dynamic risk assessment are: That ‘competent’ people do it naturally and therefore it does not require anything additionally from their employer. It doesn’t rely on a complicated system of risk assessment documents or procedures which can be unwieldy or impractical in real world scenarios. It can remove management responsibility and places the onus on the individual to make safety critical decisions. Dynamic risk assessment will always be required because the person on the ground is the only person who is fully aware of the issues and therefore the only person who can make a reasoned assessment of the risk. However, dynamic risk assessment should not be the only weapon in the risk management armoury as there are a number of factors which can make them ineffective: A desire to get the job done – people cutting safety critical corners with the best of intentions. A vet may put animal welfare above their own personal safety, despite what their dynamic risk assessment may tell them. To be perceived as being ‘silly’ by colleagues for not doing work that others consider to be ‘safe’. Pressure from the customer to do the work. Customer complaints and negative impact on the reputation of a practice locally for not doing work. Financial implications of not carrying out work can encourage people to cut corners. Reactions from Directors or Partners to previous instances where work has not been carried out for safety reasons. Because of the reasons above, dynamic risk assessment is far less effective than it is often assumed to be and therefore does not provide the level of protection to the individual or business that might be expected. Dynamic risk assessment in advance? So what is the alternative to this? The alternative is to do the dynamic risk assessment thought process in advance of going onto the farm. This has the advantage of making decisions in the cold light of day which might otherwise be difficult to make in the heat of the moment and can make control measures which might be considered to be prohibitively expensive, a more viable option financially. One approach could be to use the following in a facilitated workshop with a group of farm vets from your practice: Step 1 – identify the tasks / treatments most commonly carried out on farms. Step 2 – once the treatments are identified, the minimum handling requirements to carry out these treatments safely (this can include the safety of people and the animals involved) should be identified. Step 3 – using your own internal knowledge of the facilities each of your customers have, you will be able to identify which customers have the minimum safe level of handling facilities and therefore what treatments can be carried out ‘safely’. More importantly you will be able to identify where current facilities fall under the ‘acceptable’ minimum standard. If all customer premises have the required equipment to allow all treatments to be carried out safely then no further work is required (please stop laughing - it is possible). If the majority of customers have acceptable handling facilities, but a small number do not, the options available include: Do not carry out treatments on the farm where standards are below minimum standards. This would require a senior level decision to be made as to the potential financial impact on the business if services were to be refused. Applying pressure to the farmer to improve handling facilities (again please stop laughing). Provision of mobile handling facilities (e.g. a crush). For a small numbers of customers, this may not be a viable option. Continue to carry out treatments but have local procedures developed to manage the risk on individual farms. Whilst not ideal, in the event of an accident it does provide some defence, that action has been taken. If the majority (or large proportion) of customers do not have the minimum handling facilities for any treatments, possible options include: Do not carry out treatments on farms where standards are below the minimum standards. When faced with large numbers of customers, this is unlikely to be a financially viable option. Provision of mobile handling facilities (e.g. a crush). Where large numbers of customers are potentially affected this becomes a more viable option. There is also the potential for significant efficiency savings in time and effort that can be achieved when using appropriate handling facilities which should also be included in calculations when considering investment in mobile handling facilities. Continue to carry out treatments but have local procedures developed to manage the risk on individual farms. With large numbers of customers, this may prove to be difficult to put in place. Again, whilst not ideal, in the event of an accident it does provide some defence, that action has been taken. Conclusion Livestock handling on a farm is a significant risk area for veterinary practices involved in this type of work and can be difficult to manage for a variety of reasons. Competence and dynamic risk assessment are essential control measures as part of wider risk management approach but should not be relied on in isolation. We would always recommend that risk assessments are a sensible tool to manage risk and it is sensible to apply the process across all business risks. If you wish to discuss the points raised in this article please do not hesitate to contact your local Health and Safety Consultant. Please visit the Member’s Website for their details.