As dairy herd sizes increase, one way many farms have helped manage their costs is to do more routine veterinary work themselves such as vaccinations and treatment of common ailments; or they might be using rBST on selected cows. 

Under the direction of a proper veterinary/client/patient relationship (commonly referred to as a VCPR) that establishes proper products and uses, this can be effective and cost efficient. This practice also exposes workers to an additional safety hazard, though accidental needle sticks.

Research has found that over 80 percent of livestock farm workers and 73 percent of swine veterinarians have at some time accidentally stuck themselves with a needle.

While dairy cattle may be a bit easier to control and work with than hogs, the hazard is there just the same. I remember a personal incident very well. Once, while vaccinating baby pigs during my own farming career, I accidentally vaccinated myself for erysipelas when a baby pig suddenly jerked its head over just as I was about to inject vaccine into its neck.

The Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH) at the University of Minnesota has developed a pair of factsheets that point out the hazards and suggestions for preventing this rather common injury. Most of the time, these needlesticks are harmless other than perhaps a bit of irritation, but there are some injectables that can cause severe reactions or even death. The most common injuries are skin infections, allergic reactions to the carrier, and occasionally deep tissue wounds requiring surgery.

Think about it for a moment.

If an animal has an allergic reaction, or the needle happens to carry bacteria into an animal injection site, what normally happens? The site swells up and might even develop an abscess that needs to be lanced to relieve pressure. Because an animal's skin is generally loose on top of the muscle tissue, that can be unsightly and damaging to tissue but not usually dangerous to the animal.

Human skin, however, it tightly attached to the muscle, though, so that same reaction process in the human body can create a major blood flow restriction or severe swelling that can only be relieved by creating an open wound subject to further infection and a long healing process.

Less common, but very serious, injuries can include miscarriages by pregnant women exposed to hormones, drowsiness or unconsciousness from sedatives, cardiac arrest from products like Micotil/tilmicosin, systemic infections from vaccines, and antibiotic reactions.

Best management practices (BMPs) on the farm can prevent these accidents and the potentially serious results of them. Your staff training should include the following employee practices:

  • Slow down - don't rush with injections
  • Restrain animals properly
  • Get help from co-workers
  • Use the correct animal restraint techniques and equipment
  • Don't put needle caps in your mouth
  • Discard bent needles – don't use or straighten
  • Don't carry needles/syringes in your pockets
  • Use approved sharps containers to dispose needles
  • Don't remove needles from sharps container
  • Don't recap needles
  • Report all needlestick injuries to management
  • Contact your healthcare provider

As farm owners, you are responsible for providing your employees with a safe workplace. Best management practices you can employ include:

  • Train employees about:
    • Safe needle handling
    • Safe injection procedures
    • Type of drugs used
    • Routinely re-train employees to reinforce safety procedures
  • Provide safe animal handling equipment; ensure proper staffing
  • Provide readily accessible sharps container for safe needle disposal
  • Provide needle/syringes with protective devices, such as retractable needles or hinged syringe caps
  • Encourage employees not to rush during injections
  • Remind employees to use caution when using products of concern
  • Pregnant employees should not inject hormones
  • Encourage all employees to report needlestick injuries
  • Employee should contact a healthcare provider

In spite of all your best efforts, it is likely that an accidental needlestick still will occur sometime. When it does, there are a few simple steps to remember.

  • Wash the skin with soap and water immediately
  • Report injury to your supervisor
  • Call your healthcare provider

In spite of all your best efforts, it is likely that an accidental needlestick still will occur sometime. When it does, there are a few simple steps to remember.

These are all pretty simple steps that can be taken for training and practice on the farm, but ones that can make your farm a safer place to work.

The UMASH factsheets can be downloaded from They can be printed and used as part of a safety training program on your farm. You might want to post copies in areas where injectables are commonly stored and used as a reminder to your staff.

Back to my own experience with the baby pig – my first call was to the veterinarian to find out what I could expect from the incident. He told me to expect a minor irritation and reaction to the oil carrier in the vaccine, and asked whether my tetanus vaccination was up to date. That was the end of it. By the way, the vaccination must have been effective – I have never had erysipelas!