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Worker injuries from animals may not make up a large part of workers compensation claims, but as people increasingly seek accommodations for emotional and psychiatric support animals and as pet-friendly workplaces spread, more animal-related injuries may be on the horizon, experts say.
Denver-based comp insurer Pinnacol Assurance examined animal-related injuries after hearing about more businesses in Colorado inviting employee pets into the workplace, said Pinnacol safety consultant Ellen Sarvay. The Society for Human Resources Management said 7% of workforces in 2016 were pet friendly, up from 4% in 2014.
According to Pinnacol’s claims data, rates of puncture wounds from animal bites and lacerations from scratches have held steady at between 800 and 900 bite- or scratch-related comp claims each year for Pinnacol policyholders from 2013 to 2018. New employees — those who had been on the job less than six months — accounted for 33% of the animal-related injuries.
The State Accident Insurance Fund Corp. in Oregon said injuries from dogs and cats have accounted for nearly 2,000 workers comp claims since 2014. While veterinary clinics, pet care businesses and universities had the highest rates of animal-related injuries, workers providing in-home services, such as janitorial, plumbing, and heating and air conditioning, also reported dog-related injuries. SAIF also found a number of cat-related injuries were reported by workers in home health care, nursing care and residential care facilities.
However, animal-related comp claims can emerge from unexpected places, observers say.
Wayne Brinkman, Dallas-based senior casualty claims consultant with Aon’s casualty claims team, said he has a variety of clients with significant animal-related comp claims in industries where animal exposure would not normally be expected. One recent claim came from a property manager who was bitten in the face by a tenant’s dog, triggering a “very high dollar” workers comp claim, as well as a million dollar-plus third-party liability suit.
“(Many companies) have not necessarily been accustomed to being exposed to animal bites,” said Mr. Brinkman. “If animals are not commonly in the picture, they haven’t had a training program in place until an incident occurs.”
One of Mr. Brinkman’s clients, a heating and air conditioning service company, was reporting a dog bite each month, which led the company to develop a training program for employees on how to encounter dogs, what to do if they feel they could be attacked, and how to mitigate their injuries if they are attacked. He said the program has significantly reduced their bite-related claims.
At Home Care Connect LLC in Winter Park, Florida, vice president of operations Anita Jovic takes steps to protect home health agency workers from the risk of animal bites or scratches when they are entering an injured worker’s home to provide health care or therapy. She has also seen some severe injuries suffered by workers at the hands of a client or co-worker’s pet.
“When we get a referral … we ask the injured worker, ‘Do you have pets at home, and what kind of pets do you have in the home?’ then coordinate with the home health agency, nurse or physical therapist to make sure they don’t have allergies and are not scared of pets,” she said. “We ask the injured worker if they have an aggressive dog, and we actually have them board them up; 99% of injured workers will put them in a crate or another room.”
While the early assessment has helped keep worker injuries from animals low, the company has coordinated treatment for workers who have sustained significant injuries as a result of someone else’s pet while on the job, said Ms. Jovic. In one case, a woman was scratched by her co-worker’s cat at their pet-friendly workplace and ended up with cat scratch fever, which progressed to the point where she had part of a leg amputated.
“It was a very costly claim — not just the IV antibiotics, but multiple hospitalizations, an amputation, having to go through the prostheses process,” she said.
Another client, a postal service worker, was on antibiotics for 12 weeks after getting bit by a dog that was not properly immunized, she recalled.
The U.S. Postal Service reported that 5,714 postal workers were bitten by dogs in the course of their work in 2018, but noted that number has declined, in part due to the use of alerts on mail carriers’ scanners that allow them to note the presence of an unleashed dog in the delivery area, USPS said in a news release in April.
Atlanta-based UPS Inc. says compared with the risks related to vehicular accidents and other personal injuries, animal-related risks are small. The company does train their drivers annually on avoiding dog bites, and said one of the keys is that the drivers get to know their customers’ dogs.
“Delivery drivers know their customers very, very well … they know most of the people, pets, and know which ones to be cautious of,” said a UPS spokesman. “There’s lots of stories of drivers carrying dog biscuits with them. They’ve made friends with those pets.”
Pet or service animal?
The rise of individuals using emotional or psychiatric support animals is leading to employee exposure to pets in less likely industries.
According to the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, the number of assistance animals being placed in the U.S. is growing rapidly, but the lack of a federal registration system of assistance dogs or qualifications and the broad definition of reasonable accommodation in the Americans with Disabilities Act means places of public accommodation are oftentimes faced with allowing access to emotional support animals extending beyond cats and dogs, including even birds, monkeys and miniature horses, that do not need to perform any tasks.
“There has been a marked increase in the proliferation of ‘comfort animals’ that do not have any proper training as service dogs,” said Carolyn Richmond, chair of the hospitality practice group in the New York office of law firm Fox Rothschild LLP. “The risk of dog bites, soiling of surroundings and other problems rises drastically.”
Under the ADA, places of public accommodation are only allowed to ask two questions to determine if an animal is a service animal: Is the dog a service animal required by a disability, and what work or tasks has the dog been trained to perform, said Ms. Richmond.
“Now, even if a dog is properly considered a service animal, it does not mean a business has to accept disruption — uncontrolled barking, defecating or urinating in the establishment and certainly not biting,” she said. “Staff must be trained on the proper way to handle a dog that appears uncontrollable. This usually involves finesse and sometimes may require the police.”
Disruption from comfort animals on commercial airlines led the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a final statement of enforcement priorities regarding service animals. In January 2019, a flight attendant received five stitches after being bitten by an emotional support animal on an American Airlines flight, according to the flight attendants union, which conducted a 2018 survey that revealed that 61% of flight attendants said an emotional support animal had caused an issue during flight in the past two years.
The announcement, which took effect Aug. 21, stated that the DOT will decline to take action against airlines that ask for documentation relating to the vaccination, training or behavior of service animals, and will allow airlines to require medical documentation of a passenger’s need for an emotional support animal or psychiatric service animal.
An American Airlines spokeswoman said the airline welcomes the guidance and supports the rights of customers “with legitimate needs for trained service animals.”
“Our team members are committed to creating an excellent flight experience … but that can be difficult to do with untrained animals at the airport and onboard their flights,” she said in an email.
Sorry, your peacock cannot fly with us today. Neither can your hedgehog, goat or (insert other unusual emotional support animal here).