Animal Handlers

Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM) is committed to providing a safe working environment for all personnel, including individuals who have contact with animals. This would include employees who handle live animals, unpreserved tissues or body fluids, animal cages or animal carcasses.

Animal or animal products such as dander, hair, scaled fur, saliva and body wastes contain powerful allergens that can cause both respiratory and skin disorders. Allergies and the development of allergies are perhaps the most common hazard associated with working with and around laboratory animals. It is estimated that as many as 40% to 70% may experience allergic reactions of some type when working with laboratory animals. Up to 20% of allergic animal users may develop occupational asthma, which can limit the ability to work and may lead to permanent disability.

Inhalation is one of the most common ways for allergens to enter the body. After a period of time (often several months, but occasionally years), workers may inhale sufficient quantities of allergens to become sensitized, thus they develop symptoms when exposed again, even to tiny amounts of the allergen.

Personnel with a history of allergic reactions are much more likely to develop laboratory animal allergies and the incidence increases with increasing exposure. The purpose of the medical surveillance program and questionnaire is to identify employees with conditions that could place them at increased risk.

Types of allergic reactions to animals can include:

  • Hives: Called contact urticaria, these are raised, clearly demarcated red lesions
  • Allergic conjunctivitis: The conjunctiva of the eyes is red, itchy, and the eyes may water.
  • Nasal congestion: Called rhinitis, this is experienced by sneezing, an itchy nose, and clear nasal discharge.
  • Asthma: Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.
  • Anaphylaxis: This is an extreme and sometimes life-threatening reaction which can include hives, generalized itching, throat tightness, eye or lip swelling, and difficulty breathing or swallowing.

Employees who are experiencing allergic symptoms from an exposure to animals at work should report these symptoms to Occupational Health (314) 362-3528. In the case of severe symptoms with difficulty breathing, call (314) 362-HELP, for transport to the emergency room.

Animal related allergies can often be managed by a combination of medical management and work place strategies. Wearing masks, gloves, hair bonnets, shoe covers, laboratory coats, safety glasses, performing animal manipulations within biological hoods, and showering after the workday all help decrease exposure and allergic reactions.

Those reporting significant animal allergy symptoms will be contacted by Occupational Health for further evaluation.

Additional information regarding animal related allergies can be found on the CDC website.

It is important to report any animal’s bites, including rodent bites to WUSM Occupational Health Services. For non-emergent, routine treatment on regular workdays, Monday-Friday between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., call (314) 362-3528 to report the incident; after hours or on weekends, call Occupational Health Services at (314) 871-2966 (listen to the directions for further instructions) to report the incident.

Employees working with non-human primates

Personnel working with non-human primates will be required to receive the following:

  • Annual Tuberculosis (TB) screening for anyone without a prior history of a reactive test. Those who test positive for TB will be evaluated annually to determine if they may work with nonhuman primates.
  • Employees must provide written official documentation of Measles, Rubella immunity (titers.) Employees who are non immune will be offered the vaccine; those who choose not to receive the vaccine may not be allowed to work with nonhuman primates.

A serum sample taken at the time of the initial physical examination, and every five years thereafter, to be stored and used as a baseline sample. Additional samples may be taken after a bite or scratch injury or at the discretion of Occupational Health Services when an illness that may be animal-related is suspected.

All employees working with macaques should schedule an appointment with Occupational Health Services to discuss the exposure protocol.