Top 5 most dangerous occupational hazards for doctors

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published October 12, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Hazards in the workplace for HCPs include the risk of disease, violence, substance abuse, and physical wear and tear on the body.

  • Sometimes, more experienced doctors are the most likely to take risks and get hurt.

  • Recognizing your vulnerability as a physician can help you stay safe.

Doctors are considered white-collar professionals, but that doesn’t mean they’re protected against unsafe conditions in the workplace. The healthcare and social service industries reported a 40% increase in work-related injury and illness in recent years, with levels higher than any other private industry.[]

Understanding your risks is vital to staying safe. Here are some of the top hazards physicians can be exposed to at work.

Blood-borne pathogens

All providers who work with patients must manage the risk of accidents, particularly those involving contaminated bodily fluids.

A review of occupational hazards among surgeons revealed that surgeons, in particular, face a greater risk of sharps injuries compared with other specialties.[]

A study of general surgeons in France calculated an average rate of 0.8 injuries per 100 hours of operating time. This equated to 210 injuries during a career, leading to a 6.9% chance of contracting hepatitis C and a 0.15% lifetime risk of HIV.

Interestingly, some studies suggest senior surgeons and consultants are the ones most likely to neglect safety standards and get injured. A lack of equipment, time, and resources, along with excessive paperwork and long hours, are believed to contribute to the problem. Surgeons may also be reluctant to report accidents or stop surgery in the event of an accident, as they often prioritize patients’ needs above their own or fear being barred from practice.

Physicians in the emergency department are also at high risk for exposure to bloodborne pathogens, according to a scoping review on occupational mortality risks among emergency department physicians.[]

Research indicates that 55% to 70% experience at least one needlestick. In one study, of the total sharps injuries in the emergency department over a 4-year period, 44% happened to doctors.

Workplace violence

The same review on emergency room physicians showed that they may also be particularly vulnerable to violence at work. Over the course of 1 year, a staggering 78% of emergency physicians in one study were subjected to violence, with 21% of these cases being physical assault. 

Related: Unsafe haven: The rise of violence against physicians in the workplace

Hospital shootings are another hazard. In a review of 88 hospital shootings, 30% occurred in the emergency department. Between 2012 and 2016, there was an average of 5.4 emergency department shootings per year. However, overall, the likelihood of a physician being killed by gun violence in the emergency department is extremely rare, despite the risk of exposure to violence in the department. Nonetheless, carrying the mental load of this danger can weigh heavily on the minds of physicians in high-stress environments.

Substance use disorders

Compared with the general population, the use of prescription drugs, including benzodiazepines and minor opiates, is higher in physicians and often self-prescribed.

This was one of the salient findings in a review of mental illness and suicide among physicians.[] Stimulants and sleeping pills may also be abused in attempts to keep up with the demanding physician schedule. Additionally, in high-income countries, 5% to 20% of doctors have problematic drinking habits. Some estimates suggest that alcohol is responsible for 5% of cases of suboptimal patient care.

Several factors can make physicians vulnerable to the harmful use of alcohol and drugs. Easy access to substances, high pressure at work, and an unwillingness to seek mental health support can be particularly damaging. Past reports suggest that anesthesiologists are in a high-risk specialty. Newer research points to dermatologists, orthopedic surgeons, internal medicine doctors, and emergency room doctors at the highest risk for alcohol issues. 

Related: Are you binge drinking during your residency years? It's a perilous path

Chronic pain

The article on occupational risks among surgeons found that surgeons, including dental surgeons, are especially prone to the development of musculoskeletal pain, particularly in the hands and wrists.

A cross-sectional study reported a similar rate of musculoskeletal pain among physicians as in the general population (about 20%), but the rate was higher in surgeons, at 27%, and highest of all in dentists, at 61%.

Standing for long periods of time, being overweight, and lifting patients without the proper support and technique increase the risk of muscle strain and injury.

Hearing and vision loss

Noise exposure and poor lighting or glare can contribute to eye strain and hearing damage among physicians and other HCPs.[]

For example, orthopedic surgeons using air-powered and electric drills and saws may be exposed to noise levels of 100 decibels, which exceeds the recommended limit of 85 decibels, leading to noise-induced hearing loss. Awareness and use of protective gear can help reduce this risk for physicians who are willing to take extra steps to protect themselves.

What this means for you

Doctors must deal with daily risks to their physical and mental health in the workplace. It’s crucial not to underestimate the cumulative damage that can occur when disregarding important precautions. Establishing good habits early in your career, such as wearing protective gear and avoiding risky behaviors, will support your longevity as a physician.

Read Next: 2023 update: Top causes of death among doctors
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