Mr McCenzie has worked as a poultry farmer in Ireland for over 25 years. He carries out various tasks within the turkey sheds which house thousands of birds. The sheds are dirty but that is the nature of the job. During and after work he and his colleagues have often complained of wheezing and throat soreness. Over time, this has gradually become worse for Mr McCenzie so he needs to understand more if working with the birds is bad for his health.
Because of the ongoing health issues, he decided to call in an occupational hygienist. The occupational hygienist recommended that Mr McCenzie and his colleagues should begin to wear respiratory masks to protect against poultry dust. As a result, he recently completed the purchase of positive pressure respiratory masks which will be worn whilst working on the farm.
Mr McCenzie and his colleagues perform daily activities on the turkey farm and are therefore constantly subject to poultry dust. These can be caused by;
- handling and inspecting birds;
- the routine upkeep and cleaning of houses during the growing or production period;
- laying down litter;
- vaccinating birds;
- catching or depleting birds.
Poultry dust may vary in composition from pure wood dust to a complex mixture of organic and inorganic particles, faecal material, feathers, mites, bacteria, fungi and fungal spores depending on the breed of birds and the type of work activity.
Some of the individual components, e.g. storage mites and softwood dust, are known as asthmagens (substances that are capable of causing occupational asthma).
Which activities generate poultry dust?
People working in poultry houses breathe in a host of different airborne particles, which collectively are referred to as poultry dust. There are several typical activities that generate airborne poultry dust, capable of causing respiratory disease:
- Laying down bedding – Spreading straw/wood shavings by hand
- Routine crop maintenance and cleaning – sweeping, brushing or using an air blower to clean out debris
- Catching poultry (depopulation) – herding birds, catching birds and loading birds into modules.
- Litter/manure removal – shoveling or scooping to remove litter from the walls, floors and roof supports where debris has accumulated
- Cleaning poultry houses after depopulation – Using compressed air to blow down poultry material at a high level.
What are the health effects of poultry dust?
A person’s response to dust depends on many factors including the nature, duration, level and particle size distribution of airborne exposures.
Poultry dust contains particles of varying sizes in the range c. 0.5 to 50 microns. The presence of particles in the respirable range (<5-7 microns) means that poultry dust particles penetrate into the gas exchange region of the lung. Larger particles also cause disease by impacting the upper and larger airways below the vocal cords.
The dust, like other agricultural dust, contains several allergens that cause respiratory illness. Multiple exposures are common, and some exposures cause more than one specific disease.
Acute and chronic work-related symptoms are very common in poultry workers and include coughing, bring up phlegm, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, eye irritation, nasal congestion, sneezing, runny nose, throat irritation, headache, fever, and fatigue. These symptoms are generally non-specific and may improve on periods away from work.
Managing exposure risks from poultry dust
Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended) (COSHH), employers must make sure that employees’ exposure to poultry dust is either prevented or, where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled.
Respiratory protective equipment
In many cases, respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is still required for adequate control of exposure.
RPE should be capable of providing adequate protection and should fit the wearer properly.
Mr McCenzie and his colleagues have beards, so it was their preference to find a respirator which could be worn with beards without affecting the seal around their face. The cheaper alternative is to wear a tight-fitting facemask but these were not suitable. A tight-fitting respirator would require Mr McCenzie to clean-shave daily which he wasn’t prepared to do. So the alternative is a loose-fitting head top which connects to a powered air unit.
Whilst these units are more expensive than tight-fitting respirable masks, they do have their perks. Because the turkey farmers are carrying out their duties over long periods of time, loose-fitting masks can be comfortably worn. They push cool air around the mask, whereas if the farmers decided to wear a tight-fitting face mask, these can only be worn for 60 minutes at a time.