The purpose of an occupational health program is to help to provide a safe and healthy work environment. Working with laboratory animals presents potential hazards or problems: some are inherent in all animal-care related activities and others result from the nature and design of the experimental protocol.
Physical hazards include scratches, bites, injuries from lifting or carrying heavy objects, needle-sticks or injuries from other sharp objects, and falling injuries.
Chemical hazards include flammable agents, cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing compounds, carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, and radioactive compounds.
Zoonotic hazards include infectious agents (biohazards) individuals may be exposed to when working with laboratory animals. Though fairly uncommon, they represent potentially serious and fatal hazards to those working with laboratory animals.
Laboratory animal allergies is one of the most wide-spread and serious hazard faced by individuals working with laboratory animals. Many individuals (40 to 75 percent) experience allergic reactions of some type when working with laboratory animals- many of these can ultimately develop asthma.
Standards and Guidelines
For many years, NIH and other federal funding bodies have required that research facilities provide an occupational health program for those who work with research animals. In 1997, the National Research Council (NRC) published Occupational Health and Safety in the Care and Use of Research Animals, which established the standards for Occupational Health Programs in research facilities. The objective was to promote occupational health and safety by recognizing and considering hazards and health risks associated with the care and use of research animals. The report differed from previous reports, though it affirmed prudent practices developed in previous reports.
Are the standards new?
The biggest difference between the 1997 guideline and older guidelines is the concept of increased risk. It is not the number of hours an individual works with animals (e.g., determining if individuals meet “substantial animal contact” definitions) that determines their participation in the program anymore. The recommendation was “that every institution initiate a concerted effort to address the health and safety hazards associated with the care and use of research animals and broaden its occupational health and safety program as necessary to reduce the risks to an acceptable level.” Substantial contact with research animals was deemed not to be a sufficient indicator of the need for health surveillance but based on the hazards associated with the care and use of research animals.
It was also recommended that every institution develop a multidisciplinary approach to occupational health and safety that permits the continuing evaluation of potential workplace hazards and the risks to the employees who work with animals. This risk assessment should include frequency of contact, intensity of exposures, hazards associated with the animals being handled, hazardous properties of the agents being used in the research being conducted, the susceptibility of the individual employee, the hazard-control measures that are in place, and the occupational history of each individual employee.
Who is at increased risk?
An employee or student is at “increased risk” if they are exposed to live, vertebrate animals in a way that gives them an increased risk of an occupational illness, such as a zoonotic diseases, physical injury, or allergies. Most people who work with animals are at increased risk of animal related illness. The recommendations of the NRC is that participation in the occupational health surveillance program not be limited to full-time employees who are involved in the care and use of animals but to all personnel involved in the care and use of research animals based upon the basis of risks encountered.
Who must enroll in the program?
All employees who work with laboratory animals must enroll in the occupational health program. This includes Principal Investigators, post-docs, research assistants, graduate students, part-time employees, volunteers, summer students, and special payroll employees.
Who is responsible for the Occupational Health Program for individuals who work with laboratory animals?
UConn Health Center, represented by its Institutional Official (IO), has ultimate responsibility for providing a healthful and safe work environment. The IO must have an adequate understanding of all the issues in the Occupational Health Program. Institutional management is the key element required for developing and sustaining any useful occupational health and safety program.
An effective program relies on the involvement and commitment of managers at all levels. They should disseminate knowledge about the program to all personnel who work in their laboratories. PIs sign an assurance that they will make sure that all their personnel will enroll in the occupational health surveillance program.
All employees must take responsibility for their own health and safety and for the safety of others around them. This requires that employees should follow standard procedures, all applicable policies, and be knowledgeable about the risks they are working with. A truly successful program will ultimately depend on the participation of all employees.
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee
It is the responsibility of the IACUC to ensure that there is a program at the institution. It is also charged with keeping a record of all individuals enrolled in the occupational health surveillance program.
Employee Health Service
It is the responsibility of EHS to enroll individuals into the occupational health program. Employees are encouraged to discuss surveillance with a health care professional at EHS who will be able to advise each individual, in the context of their particular health status, about the risks associated with working with laboratory animals and other risks identified in the IACUC protocol.
What is the ideal program?
There is no such thing as the “ideal” occupational health and safety program. But you can say that protecting the health and safety of employees engaged in the care and use of research animals is a cooperative undertaking that requires the active participation of institutional officials, scientists who plan and carry out research involving experimental animals, individuals responsible for the management of animal care and use programs, health and safety professionals, and the individual employees who share the responsibility for their own health and safety and for the health and safety of those they work with.
What are the components of an effective occupational health program?
The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals identifies the following components as necessary to an effective occupational health program:
Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment
There should be an individual involved with the program who is qualified to assess dangers associated with the use of animals and to select safeguards appropriate to the risks. Health and safety specialists with knowledge in the appropriate disciplines should be involved in the assessment of risks associated with hazardous activities and in the development of procedures to manage those risks. Though the IACUC website provides an initial risk assessment that can be done privately, UConn Health encourages individuals to speak with the biosafety officer and Employee Health Service.
Personnel should be trained regarding zoonoses, chemical safety, microbiologic and physical hazards, handling of waste materials, and other considerations.
It is essential that all personnel maintain a high standard of personal cleanliness. Suitable and/or dedicated clothing for the animal facility and animal use laboratories should be used. Personnel should not eat, drink, smoke, or apply cosmetics in animal rooms.
Personal Protective Equipment
PPE should be provided to include dedicated clothing (where appropriate), bonnets, masks, gloves, and shoe covers. Face shields and arm protectors should be available for individuals working with nonhuman primates. Protective clothing should not be worn outside the immediate animal area (e.g., cafeteria, rest room).
Adequate Facilities, Procedures, and Monitoring
Facilities and supplies for washing should be provided- the facilities should be appropriate to the animal care and use program. Facilities, equipment, and procedures should be designed, selected, and developed to provide for ergonomically sound operations.
Medical Evaluation and Preventive Medicine for Personnel
Development and implementation of a program of medical evaluation and preventative medicine should be available. The evaluations and preventive medicine program should be tailored to each individual enrolled in the occupational health program.
Animal Experimentation Involving Hazards
Careful consideration should be given to animal protocols involving hazards to include housing considerations, waste and carcass disposal, and safe handling of the hazards involved. Formal safety programs should be established to assess hazards, determine safeguards needed for their control, ensure that the staff has the necessary training and skills, and ensure that the facilities are adequate for the safe conduct of the research being performed