Poultry workers at risk from dust exposure

Most poultry producers are already aware of the hazard of poultry dust to worker’s health and the need to ensure that exposure is kept as low as reasonably practicable.

But new research has confirmed that certain groups of specialist contractors are at particular risk, with tasks such as final-house cleaning generating the highest levels of dust.

Workers on poultry farms are exposed to an airborne cocktail of particles, including feathers from the birds and dust from dry bedding and droppings. In addition, there are mites, bacteria, fungal spores, endotoxins (toxic chemicals released from dead bacteria) and even pesticide and fertiliser residues.

Larger dust particles are stopped in the nose and upper breathing passages where they can cause irritation, bronchitis and sometimes asthma. However, smaller ones, such as spores from mouldy straw that cause Farmer’s Lung, penetrate into the deeper recesses of the lung.

Symptoms include irritation of the nose and eyes, fever and general aches and pains, headache, chest tightness, coughing, wheezing, breathlessness and weight loss. Workers may become allergic or sensitised to specific agents and suffer extreme reactions if then exposed to even low levels for short periods. Severe asthmatic attacks can be fatal.

Who is at risk?

The duration, frequency and level of exposure of an individual worker determines the probability of experiencing a particular symptom
or disease.

dust chart

Dust levels depend on many factors, including the type of bird, age of the flock, housing system, type and condition of the bedding and the tasks undertaken.

In general, the higher and the more frequent the exposure, the greater the risk of developing breathing difficulties. However, there is some evidence that short-term, peak exposures may have a significant bearing on sensitisation.

The Heath and Safety Executive (HSE), recently commissioned the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) to conduct a survey of both the egg and broiler sectors, which included personal monitoring of workers carrying out typical farm tasks
(see table).

The figures represent the maximum levels measured for the tasks averaged over the sampling periods. Measurements of corresponding bacteria, fungi and endotoxin levels were also measured.

Fortunately, the tasks that give rise to the highest exposures are only carried out periodically, but often by contractors specialising in providing services to the industry.

This means that contract workers are most at risk of developing breathing problems, as they are exposed to poultry dust throughout their working lives.

What can you do?

The HSE has worked closely with the industry to produce guidance focusing on the range of tasks that have place workers at greatest risk and provides practical advice on how to protect workers’ health.

The new guidance, endorsed by both the British Poultry Council and the British Egg Industry Council, highlights good working practice based on creating less airborne dust and phasing-in vehicles with enclosed, ventilated cabs with
filtered air intakes as older machines are replaced.

However, the guidance also recognises the important part that respiratory protective equipment will continue to play in the foreseeable future and provides additional advice on its effective management.

Practical tips include carrying out tasks when dust levels are naturally lowest, such as when birds are not dust-bathing, adopting “low-dust” cleaning methods, such as vacuum cleaning or wet cleaning and specifying a minimum re-entry time, such as 30 minutes, for the air to clear after spreading any bedding. Producers and contractors who follow the guidance will normally be complying with their duties to control exposure to poultry dust under Control of Substances Hazardous to Heath (COSHH). However, they will still need to carry out their own risk assessments to validate the application of the guidance to their own circumstances.

In some cases, higher standards of control may be necessary, while in other cases lower standards may be justified. In all cases, employers should consult their own workers or their representatives when assessing risks and making decisions about control measures. Good communication and co-operation are essential if control measures are to be adopted by the workforce.

Want to know more?
HSE has prepared a toolbox talk, a pocket card and a poster to be used as training aids to raise awareness of the risks of poultry dust and promote good control practices. Details are available at www.hse.gov.uk/agriculture/poultry. The poster is only available from www.hsebooks.co.uk.
The new guidance can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/web39.pdf
More information on the constituents of poultry dust and their potential health effects can be found in HSE’s newly published The statement of evidence – respiratory hazards of poultry dust report www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/web40.pdf
The full research results are contained in Research Report RR655 – see www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrhtm/rr655.htm