The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued guidelines to educate employees and employers about the hazards of exposure to “avian flu” from infected birds. “Protecting Employees from Avian Flu Viruses” is available on the OSHA Web site in English and Spanish. Some important highlights of these guidelines include:
- Avian flu is a viral disease that infects birds.
- Infected birds can have mild symptoms like decreased egg production, or the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus can kill a whole flock in hours.
- Though rare, the H5N1 virus has infected humans in close contact with infected birds.
- Workers at risk for infection include poultry growers, service workers that visit poultry farms, layer barn and chick tenders at egg production facilities, and workers that monitor the poultry industry.
- Contact with infected birds’ eye and nose secretions, dead birds, droppings, contaminated litter, and/or contaminated surfaces can cause infection.
Know the signs and symptoms of bird flu in poultry. Report to your employer any birds that suddenly die with no symptoms, or appear to lack energy, appetite, and coordination. Watch birds for wattles, combs, and legs that turn purple. Look for swelled heads, eyelids, combs, wattles, or hocks. Check eggs for a decline in production, soft shells or odd shapes. Infected birds may also have symptoms of diarrhea, coughing, sneezing, or nasal discharge.
Watch for signs and symptoms that you are infected. Symptoms may vary due to age and overall health, but watch for typical flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, and muscle aches. Eye infections, pneumonia, and severe respiratory diseases have also been linked to the virus. If you develop any of these symptoms, notify your employer and let your medical provider know that you work with poultry. Prescription anti-viral medications are available.
Avoid direct contact with bird secretions and inhalation of contaminated dust. Use personal protective equipment (PPE) on the job, including disposable lightweight gloves or heavy duty rubber gloves that can be disinfected. Wear disposable or washable coveralls, waterproof aprons, and long sleeves and pants. Use a disposable head/hair covering. Wear rubber boots or disposable shoe coverings. Safety goggles prevent exposures to your eyes. A respirator protects your lungs from inhaling infected droppings or litter.
Practice good hygiene after you work with birds. First, exit the work area and remove protective clothing, foot, and hair covers. Then, remove your gloves and wash your hands with soap and water. Next, remove your safety goggles and lastly, your respirator. Discard all disposable equipment and decontaminate the re-usable equipment with a detergent and disinfectant. Hand hygiene measures should promptly be performed after PPE removal. Do not eat, drink, smoke, or use the restroom until you have exited the work area, removed contaminated PPE, and washed your hands.
To help prevent the H5N1 virus from mutating to become transmittable from human to human, OSHA recommends that all poultry workers get yearly flu vaccinations.