Interim Guidance Aims to Protect Workers From Bird Flu

By Alana Smart / April 30, 2024 / Blog ,

Interim Guidance Aims to Protect Workers From Bird Flu

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently updated its interim guidance aiming to protect workers from bird flu. Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, is a significant concern for workers in agricultural settings, especially those who come into contact with poultry and livestock. Though the risk of human infection remains relatively low, recent outbreaks and cases in the United States have highlighted the need to understand the virus and take preventative measures.

The Nature of Avian Influenza

Avian influenza is a disease that primarily affects birds and is caused by infection with H5N1 viruses. However, the disease can occasionally infect humans, usually through close contact with infected animals or their environment. Even though human cases are rare, they can result in severe illness. Recent incidents highlight the importance of recognizing and addressing the potential risks to workers in agricultural settings. The recent discovery of bird flu in U.S. cattle is a stark reminder of the potential for zoonotic transmission and workers’ susceptibility.

Human Cases in the United States

Currently, outbreaks of poultry diseases have been documented in 48 states. Two cases of human infection have been reported: one as a result of being around dairy cows and the other from being around poultry. A person from Texas has tested positive for a severe form of bird flu known as HPAI A(H5N1) virus. This person came into contact with dairy cattle, presumably infected with the virus. The only symptom they experienced was conjunctivitis, or “pink-eye”. Another person tested positive for avian influenza in Colorado. This person participated in culling poultry with presumptive bird flu at work. Their only symptom was fatigue for a few days, and they have since recovered.

The CDC reported on April 29 that although avian flu outbreaks remain sporadic in poultry flocks and mammals, there are continued widespread detections in wild birds. Additionally, there is an ongoing multi-state outbreak in dairy cattle. Despite this, the current public health risk for avian flu is low. The CDC will continue to monitor the situation closely and work with states to track any individuals exposed to animals.

Risks to Agricultural Workers

Workers in poultry farms, dairy farms, slaughterhouses, and other agricultural settings face inherent risks of exposure to avian influenza. Direct contact with sick animals, contaminated surfaces, and aerosolized virus particles can lead to transmission of the virus to humans. Despite the typically mild symptoms observed in human cases, severe illness is potential.

According to the CDC, human bird flu virus infections can present with various signs and symptoms. These symptoms can vary from mild to severe. Mild symptoms can include conjunctivitis or mild flu-like respiratory symptoms, while severe cases may require hospitalization. Common symptoms include cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. Fevers of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher may also occur. However, they are only sometimes present. Less common symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or seizures.

Risk Mitigation for Employers

In light of these risks, employers must proactively protect workers from bird flu and ensure a safe environment. Employers can take practical steps that employers can take to mitigate the risks of avian influenza across diverse agricultural settings.

First and foremost, comprehensive education and training for workers are crucial. Employees must receive thorough instruction on avian influenza, its modes of transmission, and preventive measures. Employers should emphasize the correct usage of personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure maximum effectiveness in reducing exposure to the virus as well as participate in fit-testing programs.

The CDC notes that “all PPE should be used in accordance with OSHA regulations.” Workers must be trained to use personal protective equipment (PPE) correctly.  If staff need respirators, they should follow the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Respiratory Protection standard.
Employees who use respirators must obtain medical clearance and undergo training and fit-testing.

PPE training should cover the following topics:

  • Proper fit-testing, wearing, and use of respirators
  • Safe removal of respirators
  • Adequate disposal of disposable respirators
  • Cleaning, disinfection, and recommended cartridge change-out schedule for reusable respirators
  • Medical contraindications to respirator use
  • Use of only NIOSH Approved® respirators

Implementing robust biosecurity measures and surveillance systems tailored to each agricultural setting is paramount. This may involve restricting access to farm premises, disinfecting equipment, and establishing designated clean and contaminated zones to prevent the introduction and spread of avian influenza. Furthermore, workers should also be trained to recognize signs of illness and promptly report any suspected cases to relevant authorities for further investigation.



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