Risks with Pets at the Office
By: Anne Huben-Kearney, RN, BSN, MPA, CPHQ, CPHRM, FASHRM
Assistant Vice President, Risk Management Group AWAC Services Company, a member company of Allied World

PAULINE BARRY, BSN, MPS, CPHRM, CPPS, DFASHRM
Assistant Vice President, Risk Management Group AWAC Services Company, a member company of Allied World

The Risk Management Team increasingly receives questions regarding staff/colleague/patient requests to bring their pet into the workplace or treatment settings. Regardless of who asks to bring an animal into the workplace, there are potential liabilities and human resource factors to consider.

First, clarify whether the request concerns bringing a service animal to work. The distinction between “service animals” and other “emotional support” animals is important.   Under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is any dog/miniature horse that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work or task must be directly related to the person’s disability.1

With respect to service animals, the ADA requires public accommodations (restaurants, stores, movie theaters, healthcare facilities, etc…) to allow service animals to accompany their owners anywhere the owners can go. Places of public accommodation are allowed to ask only two questions to determine if an animal is a service animal:

  • Do you need the animal because of a disability? and,
  • What work or tasks has this animal been trained to perform?

Thus, if the request to bring a pet into the office/workplace pertains to a service animal, it is important to understand the corresponding rights and obligations provided to service animals and their owners under the ADA.

Other support animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA, and do not receive the same legal protections.   Generally, a regular pet can be an emotional support animal if another mental health provider writes a letter saying that the owner has a mental health condition or disability and needs the animal’s help for his or her health or treatment.

There are also situations where a therapy animal is an important part of the patient’s treatment plan, and may attend appointments with the patient. Consider the following recommendations when deciding whether to permit pets and support animals (non-service animals) in the office/workplace setting.

Local Ordinances

Check local ordinances to ensure bringing pets to the office/workplace is allowed.

Leased Office Space

If the office is leased, there needs to be written consent from the landlord that non-service animals are allowed.

Office Policies

Once determined that non-service animals may be allowed, the next step would be to consider office policies, including:

  • Criteria for the types of animals allowed (e.g., no snakes) and the age of the animal, such as not allowing kittens and puppies, which are not housebroken or trained;
  • Explicit support for pets in the office by all patients and staff members, given that they may have allergies or phobias. Reasonable accommodations must be made such as changing work areas, or establishing pet-free areas such as an additional waiting room, kitchen/break area, conference rooms, restrooms; and separate entrances/exits.
  • Indemnification agreement with an employee pet owner holding the employer harmless in case of injury or damage caused by the pet; any repair or cleaning/maintenance costs incurred by an animal will be charged in full to the owner;
    • As “dog bite” cases are governed by state law, it is important to consult a lawyer in the state where you practice regarding the specific state law. If the employer allows the employee to bring a dog to work, some jurisdictions consider the employer the dog’s “keeper” as the keeper may be liable for injuries caused by the dog.
    • The organization/practice shall not be liable for loss of, or injury to, any animal brought to the workplace.
  • Specific containment area for the pet (such as cubicle, office or crate) or requiring the pet be kept on a leash, given the type of environment and potential risks for both the patients, staff and the pet;
  • Sick animals or animals with fleas or any disease that is communicable to other animals in the office or to humans may not be brought to the workplace/office; animals that have not been spayed or neutered will not be permitted to come to the office in season;
  • The number of pets allowed at the same time, generally no more than two pets in the workplace/office at any given time;
  • Means to enforce the organizational policy and to periodically evaluate the program of allowing non-service animals in the office/workplace;

Requirements of the Pet Owner

The organizational/practice policy needs to define the responsibilities of the pet owner, including:

  • Written evidence of vaccination and health history of the pet before bringing the pet into the workplace/office;
  • The pet owner is responsible for taking care of the pet, keeping it clean and free of parasites or other potential infections, taking it out to relieve itself as needed, bringing in food and litter;
  • Evidence of renter’s or homeowner’s insurance policy, for coverage of any injury caused by the pet, including a trip or fall by an employee, patient, visitor, vendor, et al; the animal owner is required to maintain a liability insurance policy covering damage or injuries caused by the animal while at the office. The organization/practice may specify minimum coverage amounts under such a policy, and may require the owner to pay for such coverage;
  • The clear accountability/responsibility of the employee, not the organization/practice, if the animal bites, scratches, or injures someone;
  • The pet owner supplies the pet’s water bowl, food, snacks, waste containment supplies, such as litter or waste disposal bags and chew toys to keep them occupied — however, loud squeaky toys or other items that might distract or annoy coworkers should be avoided; and
  • The pet owner cleans up after the pet and ensures litter boxes are emptied and cleaned each day that the pet is brought into the workplace/office.

Requirements of the Pet

“Ground rules” for the pets need to be established with specific expectations, such as:

  • Being properly groomed at all times;
  • Expectations for the pet’s behavior, especially that they have basic obedience skills, are house-trained/litter trained, do not howl, growl, scratch, bark or whine to distract/intimidate staff, and are not loudly fearful during weather events, such as thunderstorms;
  • Having current/updated vaccinations as well as updated flea/tick and heartworm treatments with documented proof of the vaccinations/treatments;
  • Having no history of being dangerous, aggressive, or have vicious propensities towards people or other animals. If there are any signs of aggression, they must be removed and cannot return to the workplace/office; and
  • If the pet has three “accidents,” they may not come back to the office.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors need to be considered, such as:

  • Whether the office floor is tiled or has easy-to-remove carpet squares in case of accidents;
  • That the office is “pet safe,” such as lidded trash cans, cords corralled and suspended under desks and off the floor;
  • If there is an outside area that can be designated for the pets, especially dogs, to relieve themselves and that the pet owner is expected to clean up after their pet;
  • If there are outdoor areas suitable for walking the pet; and
  • If there are designated waste disposal stations.

Informed Consent

A formal written informed consent with the pet owner regarding an animal in the office should include:

  • That the pet owner, not the organization, is responsible for any medical bills and/or litigation if the animal bites or injures anyone in the office (staff, visitor, volunteer);
  • That the pet owner is responsible for covering any damage caused by their pet; and
  • That the pet owner abides by the organizational/practice policies and ground rules on bringing pets to the office as established by the organization/practice.

Potential Liability Exposures

The following are the potential liability exposures related to having a pet in the organization/practice:

  • General/Premises Liability – in the event of a pet bite or an employee/patient/visitor/vendor trip or fall due to the pet, the organization/practice may be sued for failure to maintain a safe work environment;
  • Vicarious Liability – the employer may be responsible for the acts of an employee if the employee’s pet is not reasonably controlled;
  • Workers’ Compensation – for any pet bite or other injury related to the presence of the pet; and
  • ADA Exposure – if a claim or complaint is brought by an employee, e.g., an employee has an allergy to dogs and reasonable accommodations are not made. According to the latest amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, an animal allergy can be considered a legitimate disability. Not considering the health condition of a pet-allergy sufferer by allowing pets at the workplace can amount to discrimination against the disabled.

Options in Lieu of Bringing Pets into the Workplace/Office

The organization may want to consider scheduling periodic “bring your pet to work days” but there needs to be advance discussion and a response plan if the pets do not get along – what happens with both pets and owners?

A better option may be working with agencies to schedule group and/or individual sessions with certified therapy dogs (and handlers) for a defined period of time in a controlled and safe environment within the office.

The goal of the policy and program allowing pets in the workplace/office needs to keep the health, safety, and well-being of the patients, employees and their pets in mind.

 

1 U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, ADA Requirements, Service Animals;
http://www.ada.gov/service animals 2010.htm

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