Pregnancy in the Veterinary Workplace: Handling the Risks

ArticleLast Updated January 20145 min readWeb-Exclusive
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How should pregnancy in the veterinary workplace be handled?

Importance of Having a Written Policy

It is important that the practice’s human resources manual includes a written policy that requires all team members to inform the practice owner and/or office manager as soon as they become aware they are pregnant. While many are understandably reluctant to divulge their news before the end of the first trimester, the earlier the team leader is informed, the earlier steps can be taken, if necessary, to safeguard the health of the fetus and ensure minimal disruption to the team member’s career and the practice’s delivery of veterinary healthcare to its patients.

Initial Steps Upon Receiving the News of Pregnancy

First, the news should be met with sincere warm wishes and congratulations and the team member reassured that the practice will work with her and do what it reasonably can to help her with the transition and reduce the workplace hazards to the fetus.

Next, the office/safety manager should provide the pregnant team member with her job description and ask her to speak to her physician about what she can or cannot do moving forward. Then, the office/safety manager should schedule a meeting with the team member to discuss her doctor’s recommendations and remind her of the potential risks in the workplace. Keep a written record of all meetings.

Consultation with Obstetrician and Review of Workplace Risks

Pregnant team members should inform their obstetrician regarding the risks inherent in a veterinary practice, which can include:

  • Radiation exposure

  • Handling hazardous chemicals/drugs (eg, pesticides, hormones, chemotherapeutic agents)

  • Exposure to anesthetic gases, especially during procedures such as masking and waste anesthetic gases

  • Exposure to infectious or zoonotic diseases, especially when handling fractious animals (eg, rabies, tetanus, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, leptospirosis, chlamydiosis).

Decision-Making on Accommodations and Job Duties

While team leaders have a duty to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant members, especially when recommended in writing by the pregnant member’s physician, the decision to avoid workplace hazards during pregnancy remains the team member’s sole discretion. It is unlawful for managers to prohibit a team member from working in her usual capacity because she is pregnant. She should consult her physician before deciding which duties she should or should not perform according to the responsibilities outlined in her job description.

Many risks that exist in veterinary practices can be minimized by following proper safety precautions that should be included in the practice’s policy manual. The team member can also be asked to sign a document acknowledging that:

  • Workplace risks have been reviewed

  • She has discussed potential workplace risks with her doctor

  • She has decided to keep working.

Once she is fully informed of the potential risks and has sought her physician’s advice, the pregnant team member may:

  • Elect to continue to work in the same position with few or no accommodations (eg, use of a fetal radiation monitor)

  • Elect to continue to work in the same position with accommodations recommended in writing by her physician’s (eg, no radiation exposure, no lifting over 20 pounds)

  • Work in a different position (eg, an administrative position) based on her doctor’s  written recommendation—assuming there is a different position available

  • Elect to take a leave of absence based on her doctor’s written recommendation.

Circumstances may change as her pregnancy progresses, such as the ability to lift or restrain patients. Managers should always encourage the team member to bring up any concerns and be prepared to make reasonable accommodations to her duties. The team member should provide her leader with regular written recommendations from her doctor as to what she can and cannot do. If management can no longer accommodate her recommendations, she may need to take maternity leave earlier than planned.

If the team member seeks to stay in her regular position, with or without reasonable and agreed-upon accommodations, she owes it to her manager to perform substantially all of the duties necessary to carry out her work. The team leader’s duty to reasonably accommodate pregnant team members does not give them a free pass, and they must still provide services commensurate with their pay.

A manager is under no obligation to create a new position for a pregnant team member; however, a request for a more administrative position should be accommodated if:

  • A position is available

  • She is qualified for such a position

  • The accommodated position and the original position have similar value to the practice.

When considering a request for a position change, the team leader should be mindful of the practice’s medical/disability policies to ensure that all employees eligible for such leave are being treated consistently. Pregnancy laws protect those team members from discrimination.

If the pregnant team member does elect to take a leave of absence, the leave is unpaid, subject to any provisions to the contrary in her employment agreement and/or the Human Resources manual, although she may be eligible for disability benefits from a government agency. If she is eligible for benefits, management may have to hold her position open for a specified period. If the practice employs 50 or more, the practice may be subject to provisions imposed by federal and state laws, which generally protect the team member’s position while on leave.

Managing Workload and Appreciating Team Efforts during Accommodations

If management does accommodate a pregnant team member by temporarily eliminating some duties, they must be mindful of other team members’ reactions, especially if other team members are asked to take on additional responsibilities. Communication is key and team members should be:

  • Reassured that the situation is temporary and the same attempts would be made to accommodate other reasonable requests

  • Monitored on a regular basis regarding workload. If necessary, work should be distributed more equitably, or a part-time, temporary employee be hired

  • Shown appreciation for their extra efforts

Indeed, the news of a team member’s pregnancy is a good opportunity for the entire team to review the practice’s safety and medical/disability leave policies and to ensure they are being followed.