Environmental, Health and Safety Services

Safety and Health Considerations for Animal Handlers

Personnel working with animals in research or teaching programs are potentially at risk for a variety of illnesses or injuries. Personnel working with animals may be exposed to zoonotic diseases, animal bites and scratches, injury from heavy caging equipment, burns and scalds from cage washing activities, hearing loss from animal vocalizations or machinery noise (especially in cage wash areas), human pathogens introduced into the animals, toxins, carcinogens, or radioisotope use. The presence of immunocompromised or pregnant animals or personnel in the workplace is also a concern. See below for additional information on specific risks when working with animals.

All employees must complete the Medical Survey Questionnaire to document their medical history and work related exposures. Based on the information provided on the questionnaire, the Occupational Health Physician and EHSS may recommend vaccinations, medical tests (such as TB, pulmonary function or titer/other blood tests) and other assessments as needed.

Personnel should always wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when working with animals. Such clothing minimally includes a laboratory coat, gloves and eye protection. Additionally, respiratory protection may need to be worn when working with diseases that may be airborne, when working with species that are known to be highly allergenic, or when an individual is allergic to a specific animal species. All employees who utilize respiratory protection must be enrolled in EHSS’ Respiratory Protection Program. Please contact EHSS at 231-4034 if you use or need to use a respirator and are not enrolled in this program.

Zoonotic Diseases

Zoonotic diseases are capable of being transmitted between humans and animals. They often do not cause obvious signs and symptoms in one species but may cause significant illness in another species. Over 150 diseases may be classified as zoonotic. Many of these diseases are of great concern and include Rabies, Herpes B Virus, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis, Q fever and Cat Scratch fever. For more information, please see Appendix C of the Infection Control Program.

Animal Allergies

Laboratory Animal Allergy (LAA) reactions are among the most common conditions affecting the health of workers involved in the care and use of research animals. It is a significant occupational health concern for many animal attendants, staff, scientists, and technicians engaged in the care and use of laboratory animals.

LAA is a hypersensitivity reaction from exposure to a laboratory animal or its fur, dander, urine, saliva, or other body tissues. The nature and intensity of the symptoms are dependent on the level of exposure to the laboratory animal allergen by the individual. Once the worker has been sensitized, symptoms generally occur rapidly (within minutes) of exposure. Continued daily exposure can result in chronic symptoms that may require daily treatment. Individuals with a history of asthma or allergies to pollens, animals, or cigarettes are at greater risk of developing sensitivity to laboratory species.

Several species of animals commonly used in animal research and teaching are also species that frequently cause allergic reactions in people. Among these species are the cat, rabbit, rat, mouse, dog and horse. Proper use of PPE can greatly reduce the allergenic effects of these species in sensitive persons. In addition, use of PPE can prevent sensitization in someone who is not currently allergic to laboratory animals. Contact EHSS for guidance on the use of PPE to mitigate or prevent allergic reactions to the animals you are working with.

Animal-Related Injuries

Such injuries would include bites, kicks, scratches and similar animal-inflicted wounds. Proper training for those handling animals, plus proper use of PPE, is essential for reducing the frequency and severity of these types of injuries. Contact your PI or supervisor for additional training or PPE, especially when being re-assigned to a new area or species of animal. Supervisors and PI’s should contact EHSS at 231-4034 if guidance is needed.

Mechanical-Related Injuries/Other Physical hazards

Crush injuries from handling heavy caging, hearing loss from loud mechanical equipment or animal vocalizations, slip and fall injuries that occur while working in wet environments, sprains and strain injuries from heavy lifting or restraint of large animals are examples of this type of injury. Proper training of personnel and the use of appropriate work practices and use of PPE is very important to prevent harm to workers. Contact your PI or supervisor for information regarding appropriate PPE and safety procedures if you work in such areas. Supervisors and PI’s should contact EHSS at 231-4034 if guidance is needed.

Experiment Related Injuries and/or Illnesses

Experimental animals that have been exposed to human pathogens or zoonotic diseases, human cell lines, toxins, carcinogens, or radioisotopes that are excreted by the animal, whether via bodily fluids (including saliva and respiratory excretions) or bodily wastes, can present significant human health risk. IACUC protocols include questions to assess these risks and the protocols are also reviewed by EHSS. Supervisors must train animal handlers and animal users to ensure appropriate practices. Animal handlers and users are expected to review the protocol before handling any animals that have been experimentally infected with any agent or may be excreting hazardous substances. Animal handlers and laboratory staff should know the signs and symptoms of the disease caused by the infectious organism or animal species they are working with or the signs of any toxic exposure and report any illness with similar symptoms to their supervisors and EHSS by calling 231-4034.

Recommendations for Immunocompromised or Pregnant Employees Working with Mutagenic, Teratogenic and Infectious Agents

The purpose of this section is to establish guidelines to be followed when employees working with mutagenic, teratogenic and/or infectious agents are either immuno-compromised, become pregnant, or consider conception.

Any employee who has an autoimmune disease (no matter how well managed) or is taking immune suppressing medications or is pregnant or planning conception should be aware that working with mutagenic, teratogenic and/or infectious agents poses a special risk to them or a fetus. See NIOSH guides Effect of Workplace Hazards on Female Reproductive Health and Effect of Workplace Hazards on Male Reproductive Health for more information. In addition, employees should consult with their PCP or Obstetrician regarding their work and the implications to their health or that of their unborn child. If an employee chooses to communicate this medical information to his/her supervisor, there are several options that can be offered to the employee. These options include:

  • Consultation with EHSS and Virginia Tech’s Occupational Health Physician regarding the hazards in the employee’s work place, evaluation of work practices, upgrades in PPE, changes to duties.
  • Consultation between the Occupational Health Physician and the employee’s PCP or Obstetrician to thoroughly analyze the specific medical concerns for the employee in relation to the workplace hazards in order to make recommendations for accommodating the employee.
  • Consultation with Human Resources as needed to facilitate implementation of recommendations made by the medical providers or EHSS.