Personnel working in the poultry industry are permanently exposed to hazards. These have either a physical, chemical or biological nature. Proper management is needed to avoid accidents and to keep the staff motivated. In all cases, however, safety comes first.
By Mojtaba Yegani, University of Alberta, Canada
The poultry industry has undergone phenomenal growth over the past 20 years, made possible by the continuous dedication of those individuals working in different segments of the industry, including farms, hatcheries, processing plants, and feed mills. These people are subject to occupational and environmental hazards on a daily basis. Airborne exposure, injuries, and zoonotic infections are amongst the main categories of health hazards. Farm employees, especially new and untrained ones, are usually at a greater risk. Also, those who live near to poultry farms, hatcheries, and processing plants can also be exposed to health hazards through air, water, and soil.
Short- and long-term
Public awareness is of critical importance in this regard. In a study carried out in the US many years ago, 55.1% of individuals participated in the study were not concerned about the waste (manure, feathers, dead birds, etc) produced by the poultry industry. Waste was a concern for only 35.5% of the respondents. However, it seems that people are starting to become more aware of health issues related to poultry environments. The main objective of this article is to re-emphasise the crucial importance of minimising health hazards for employees in commercial poultry production settings. Both employees and employers should be aware of short- and long-term consequences of occupational hazards. Common occupational hazards in different sectors of the poultry industry (e.g. farms, hatcheries, processing plants, and feed mills) include dust/gases, musculo-skeletal disorders (traumatic injuries), infectious diseases, and exposure to chemical, biological, and physical agents. Poultry producers are often more concerned about the health and productivity of their fl ocks than of health hazards to themselves or their employees.
Common health hazards
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), health hazards in poultry working environments are categorised as accidental, physical, chemical, and biological. Here are just a few examples for each category mentioned by this organisation:
• Sprains and strains due to slip and fall while carrying heavy loads.
• Eye and skin irritation resulting from contact with disinfectants, vaccines and medicines.
• Burns from exposure to hot surfaces (e.g. beak-trimmers).
• Exposure to high levels of noise.
• Long-time exposure to heat and cold due to outdoor work.
• Musculo-skeletal problems resulting from lifting and moving of animals, feed bins (bags), egg collection.
• Respiratory problems resulting from exposure to dust, which is composed of feathers, dander, micro-organisms, etc.
• Respiratory, skin, and eye diseases due to exposure to gases including NH3, H2S, CO2, CO, and CH4.
• Exposure to disinfectants, detergents, formaldehyde and pesticides.
• Zoonotic infections. These diseases are transmitted between birds and humans.
• Antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Many studies have shown that poultry farmers have a greater risk of respiratory problems than non-farmers. For example, results of a study showed that North Carolina poultry farm workers experienced more chronic phlegm and wheezing than non-farm workers. Another study of 22 North Carolina poultry farms showed that poultry growers and catchers were exposed to high levels of dust and ammonia. Each poultry house contains its own complex mixture of dusts and gases. Nature of this mixture is dependent on numerous factors including ventilation, type of poultry, feeding system, and waste management. Dust and gas levels are usually highest in winter. Organic dust is the most common respiratory contaminant. Organic dust is a combination of dusts with bacteria or fungi (fungal spores).
Ammonia is an irritating gas present in poultry barns. The occupational threshold for ammonia is generally 25 ppm. For short-term exposure (15 minutes), the threshold is 35 ppm. An ammonia concentration of 300 ppm is immediately dangerous to life. People who have worked in poultry barns for years often can not detect levels below 50 ppm. Harmful gases in poultry houses are not limited to ammonia. H2S, CO2, CO, CH4 and vapours (associated with pesticides, disinfectants, and litter treatments) are also present and can cause health problems.
Exposure to dusts and gases results in responses in the respiratory system. These responses vary from one person to another, and may affect any part of the system. Potential responses include acute or chronic bronchitis (the most common reaction), increased airways reactivity, asthma, and chronic airway obstruction.
Poultry processing plants
A typical poultry processing plant can process tens of thousands of chickens per day. Common complaints include warts, infections from bone splinters, and rashes from the chlorine water (used to wash carcasses contaminated with faeces). Employees have to do a lot of fast and repetitive movements. They often suffer from injuries caused by the knives, saws and machinery. Cuts and lacerations are continuous hazards for workers frequently handling knives. Other injuries are also common. According to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) study, back injuries account for 40% of all poultry processing plant injuries. Workers who cut or pull the meat from the bone use quick and repetitive motions that put pressure on their wrists and hands. This situation makes these people vulnerable to debilitating conditions of the nerves, muscles, and tendons. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is the most severe type of such disorders.
When the tendons passing through a narrow channel in the wrist (the carpal tunnel) are overused, they swell and press on the nerve that controls feeling in the hand. According to a 1995 report published in the American Journal of Independent Medicine, 50% of workers reported three or more ongoing problems in the upper extremities, including decreased vibration sensitivity in their fingertips, impaired pinch strength, and numbness.
Zoonotic diseases are transmitted from animals to humans and include bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic diseases. Salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, chlamydiosis, tuberculosis, Newcastle Disease, and avian influenza are amongst the most common zoonotic diseases transmitted from poultry to humans. Poultry workers are at a greater risk of being affected by these diseases.
These and other health hazards in poultry commercial settings must be addressed through improvement in the working environment. In order to achieve this very important goal, both employers and employees are responsible. Training of employees plays a vital role in reducing the occurrence of these problems. Always know your work environment, the contaminants, and the potential hazards. Safety must always come first!