Dental assistants help dentists during oral-care procedures and perform laboratory duties. Some dental assistants learn on the job, while many complete one-year certificate or diploma programs in dental assisting. Employment of dental assistants is projected to increase 36 percent from 2008 to 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median annual wages of dental assistants in May 2008 were $32,380, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although dental assisting features several career advantages, multiple disadvantages, such as the possibility of physical injury, also exist in the field.
Acute pain that causes some dental assistants to give up their careers occurs when dental assistants injure themselves through poor ergonomics in the workplace, according to “Torres and Ehrlich Modern Dental Assisting.” Dental assistants can experience chronic headaches, numbness and tingling in the wrists and hands, and pain in the shoulders and neck due to awkward postures and repetitive motions. Dental assistants often must lean forward, twist and reach for instruments and materials while assisting the dentist during procedures to fill cavities or extract teeth, for example. Doing this frequently can cause strains and sprains. In addition, dental assistants who do not periodically change their grasp on the oral evacuator, which is used to keep patients' mouths clear and dry during treatment, can experience carpal tunnel syndrome.
Dental assistants are regularly exposed to microorganisms from patients’ mouths. When dental assistants work chair-side with dentists who use the high-speed hand piece or ultrasonic scaler during dental procedures, they can inhale the aerosols produced and potentially receive respiratory infections. A dental assistant’s use of the air-water syringe during dental procedures also can create large droplet particles contaminated by saliva and blood. Thus, dental assistants are exposed to blood-borne diseases such as the human immunodeficiency virus, the hepatitis B virus and the hepatitis C virus, which can enter the body through cuts, scrapes or even needle sticks. Because of this, dental assistants must wear protective clothing, masks, gloves and eye wear.
Taking dental radio graphs to help dentists diagnose oral-health problems in patients requires the use of a dental X-ray unit, which poses several dangers. Even though the amount of radiation used in dental radiography is small, this ionizing radiation can cause permanent damage to living cells and tissues. For example, cumulative radiation exposure can cause disorders such as cancer, cataracts or genetic abnormalities. For this reason, dental assistants must always practice radiation safety. They must never stand in the direct line of the primary beam of an X-ray and should never stand closer than six feet from the X-ray unit while radiographs are being exposed, unless the technicians are behind a lead barrier or thick drywall. Dental assistants also should use film badges to measure their exposure to radiation and additionally monitor equipment for radiation leakage.