According to OSHA and NIOSH, animal handlers, including veterinarians and veterinary technicians, have an increased risk of developing occupational asthma from exposure to allergens such as animal dander, scales, fur, body wastes, and saliva.
Animal-related asthma and allergies are exaggerated reactions of the body’s immune system to animal proteins. The body responds with symptoms such as nasal, eye, and throat irritation, and/or skin hives, and can sometimes progress to additional asthma symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and difficult breathing.
The risk can be controlled if certain methods are used to reduce exposure. In the work environment, animal handlers can take the following steps:
- Perform animal manipulations within ventilated hoods or safety cabinets if possible.
- Avoid wearing street clothes while working with animals.
- Leave work clothes at the workplace to avoid potential exposure problems for family members.
- Keep cages and animal areas clean.
- Reduce skin contact with animal products such as dander, serum, and urine by using gloves, lab coats, and approved particulate respirators with face shields.
There are also some simple steps employers can take to reduce risk:
- Increase the ventilation rate and humidity in the animal-housing areas;
- Direct airflow away from workers and toward the backs of the animal cages;
- Decrease animal density (number of animals per cubic meter of room volume);
- Keep cages and animal areas clean;
- Use absorbent pads for bedding. If these are not available, use corncob bedding instead of sawdust bedding;
- Provide protective equipment for animal handlers such as gloves, lab coats, and approved particulate respirators with face shields;
- Provide training to educate workers about animal allergies and steps for risk reduction.
Has asthma been a concern for anyone in your organization? Was there anything done to improve working conditions?