How to manage staff exposure to poultry dust

Respiratory disease is a major health risk for UK poultry farmworkers, with incidence of occupational asthma double the national average.

Staff are exposed to many different airborne particles that are known collectively as poultry dust. 

See also: A step-by-step guide to cleaning your poultry shed

Excessive exposure can harm the respiratory system – even leading to serious diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis – and the responsibility for managing this hazard lies predominantly with employers.

Charlotte Boole from Greenway Training offers some advice on this key aspect of health and safety compliance on poultry farms.

What is poultry dust?

Poultry dust is defined as a substance hazardous to health under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (Coshh) regulations 2002 because it contains asthma-causing agents known as asthmagens.

It can vary in composition depending on the type of birds, the work activity and point of production.

Typically, it is a mix of organic and inorganic components coming from bedding material, feed, faeces, feathers, dander (dead skin), dust and storage mites, as well as micro-organisms such as bacteria, moulds and endotoxins.

 

How does poultry dust affect health?

It can harm the respiratory system – the nose, throat, airways and lungs – and cause or worsen respiratory diseases.

Poultry workers can experience a range of mild to moderate symptoms, from a sore throat, irritated eyes and flu-like symptoms to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

It can also lead to serious respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and occupational asthma, with the prevalence of the latter double the national average.

Workers who develop or experience worsening respiratory disease may become unable to work, which has financial implications both for them and their employer.

What activities generate poultry dust?

A survey carried out by the Health and Safety Executive’s laboratory showed certain tasks create high concentrations of dust, with workers often exposed for prolonged and repeated periods.

Potentially hazardous activities include laying down bedding and litter, populating houses, routine maintenance, catching and depopulation, litter and manure removal, and final deep-cleaning (see “Common activities generating poultry dust”).

What does the law say?

Employers must reduce poultry dust in the workplace to the lowest level reasonably practical (see exposure reduction examples in table below).

Employers – including people who are self-employed – are responsible by law for adequately controlling their own, and their workers’, exposure to hazardous materials that cause ill health. As poultry dust is defined as a substance hazardous to health, the Coshh regulations apply.

Employers must:

  • Complete risk assessments
  • Provide adequate control measures such as respiratory protective equipment (RPE), and make sure they are used and well maintained
  • Provide information, instruction and training
  • Carry out health surveillance.

It is important that employers consult their workers when assessing risks and making decisions, because control measures are more likely to be accepted and adopted if there are good lines of communication.

Under Coshh, employers are also legally required to carry out health surveillance because of the potential for asthmagens in poultry dust.

The farmer may require advice from an occupational health professional to put in place practices that will help detect exposure symptoms early, evaluate the effectiveness of control measures, and provide an up-to-date record of the farm’s health hazards.

When carrying out health surveillance farmers should use a screening questionnaire for new employees  to note past or present asthma or chest illness, and inform them about the symptoms to watch out for and how to report them.

They should follow up with a further questionnaire at six and 12 weeks, and then annually to determine any changes. These should be kept on record.

What about managing contractors?

Contractors and their workers will often be used as part of a poultry farm’s operation and this can muddy the waters about who is legally responsible. In these scenarios, responsibility for the contractor’s worker protection is joint.

As the employer of the contractor, farmers are responsible for:

  • Selecting a competent and reliable contractor
  • Preparing and agreeing a service contract, including outlining health and safety responsibilities, and the provision of RPE
  • Providing a site induction, including farm hazards, traffic movement and health and safety rules
  • Co-ordinating with the contractor to minimise risk to both the farmer and contractor’s workers
  • Assessing and reviewing contractor performance, including checking whether health and safety rules are being compromised.

All parties need to be clear on who and what they are responsible for. This will ensure everyone remains safe and avoids disputes.

What protective equipment do farmers need to supply to workers with?

The main means of controlling exposure to poultry dust is through RPE and it is the employer’s responsibility to supply it.

Benchmark standards outline the minimum levels of protection required, but higher levels may be needed in some circumstances – risk assessments can determine what is required.

First, selecting the right respirator for each user is essential – one size does not fit all. Workers should be involved in RPE selection, and all equipment must be CE-marked.

RPE is only effective when fitted correctly, so face-fit testing should be carried out for respirators that rely on a good face seal. Facial hair affects the performance of close-fitting respirators, so workers with beards should be provided with ventilated hoods or visors.

Workers need to be trained in the correct use of RPE so they can asses for themselves whether it is fitting correctly before each use.

Reusable RPE should also be checked before each use and regularly cleaned and maintained, including disinfection between uses on different farms.

Store RPE in clean and accessible places and replace filters regularly or when damaged. Disposable respirators should never be used for more than one shift –  make sure replacements are always available.

Common activities generating poultry dust

Activity

Task

Examples of exposure reduction

Laying down bedding and litter

  • Manual and mechanical laying down of bedding and litter
  • Minimise application by hand
  • Use shed ventilation to maximum effect

Populating houses

  • Placing day-old chicks
  • Transferring point-of-lay hens
  • Use shed ventilation to maximum effect
  • Subdue lighting to keep birds calm

Routine maintenance

  • Using an air blower when cleaning housing and machinery
  • Sweeping debris or cleaning colony cages and nest boxes
  • Minimise use of blowers
  • Organise cleaning of laying areas to minimise exposure
  • Introduce measures that minimise dust production, such as vacuuming and wet cleaning

Catching and depopulation

  • Herding birds into pens
  • Welfare walks through birds
  • Catching birds
  • Vaccinating birds
  • Loading birds into modules
  • Rotate workers to reduce individual exposure
  • Maximise shed ventilation

Litter and manure removal

  • Using a mechanical bucket, blower or shovel to clear litter
  • Sweeping with a mechanical rotary brush
  • Fit vehicles with enclosed, ventilated cabs
  • Position collection lorries/trailers upwind from tipping

Final deep clean

  • Use compressed air to clean fans and other areas
  • Maximise ventilation
  • Ensure fogging/fumigation technicians are qualified

Farmers Weekly Awards 2022

Enter or nominate now