Standard Interpretations - Table of Contents|
April 19, 1991
Ms. Mary Beth Sweetland, Researcher
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Post Office Box 42516
Washington, D.C. 20015
Dear Ms. Sweetland,
This is in further response to your letter of February 28, addressed to Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin. You wrote concerning occupational exposure to psittacosis and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforcement activity to protect exposed employees.
Psittacosis, otherwise known as ornithosis, is a bacterial infection which is communicable by animals to humans. The etiological agents prevalent in birds are highly contagious and virulent for man (Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, 1983). OSHA recognizes that psittacosis is an occupational hazard for workers employed in pet shops, breeding aviaries, avian distribution networks, quarantine facilities, and the poultry processing industry.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a large and growing number of individuals are at risk of contracting occupationally-related psittacosis. Of the 1400 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control from 1980 to 1989, approximately one third were occupationally acquired. Under-reporting is suspected due to difficulty of diagnosis. Although psittacosis is primarily a respiratory disease characterized by fever and numbness, it can also involve multiple organs and cause severe systemic illness. Mortality may reach 30% in severe untreated cases and even higher rates are reported with virulent strains (The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, 1987).
It is our understanding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations require that imported psitticine birds be quarantined for 30 days. The birds may be fed chlortetracycline to prevent transmission of the disease in birds and between birds and humans in the quarantine stations. However, the bacteria continue to be isolated in recently released birds who are latently infected and employees at quarantine facilities have also developed psittacosis (Centers for Disease Control: "Psittacosis Surveillance Report", 1987; Occupational Respiratory Diseases, 1986). Moreover, many of the birds which workers handle are not imported, rather they are bred in this country, and therefore not subject to the USDA's medication requirements.
While OSHA does not have a standard specific to the hazard of psittacosis, the Agency may apply Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) to hazards not covered by a specific standard. Section 5(a)(1), commonly referred to as the General Duty Clause, states that "each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees".
In order for OSHA to enforce the General Duty Clause, a number of criteria must be met: the hazard involved must be a serious one which is generally recognized by the industry in question and a feasible method to abate the hazard must exist. Abatement methods for the hazard of psittacosis may include educating employees to the potential hazard, adhering to general rules of work and personal hygiene, and instituting an occupational medical monitoring program. Since human infection usually occurs by direct contact with, or receiving a bite from, an infected bird or indirectly by inhaling dust from the feathers or excrement of birds, proper ventilation and personal protective equipment such as gloves, goggles, and/or respirators may be required as appropriate.
In order to fully address this issue, I have requested that the [Directorate of Science, Technology and Medicine] investigate the possibility of issuing an OSHA [Safety and Health Information Bulletin (SHIB)] on this subject. Such a bulletin would inform our compliance safety and health officers of the existence of a potential area of concern so that they may be alert to the hazard of psittacosis during inspections in affected industries.
I hope this information is responsive to your concerns and I thank you for your interest in worker safety and health.
Gerard F. Scannell
[Corrected 10/22/2004. Please see the Safety and Health Information Bulletin (SHIB) on Contracting Occupationally Related Psittacosis and the CDC's page on Healthy Pets/Healthy People for additional information.]
February 28, 1991
The Honorable Lynn Martin
Secretary of Labor
Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20210
Dear Secretary Martin:
On February 8, 1991, the Prince George's County Maryland departments of health and animal control confiscated all birds from the Marlow Heights, Maryland Woolworth store due to a diagnosis of psittacosis in two birds purchased at the store.
In reviewing information on psittacosis provided me by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), I found that "93% of the cases for whom information on source of infection was known were associated with the patient's employment or hobby." Further, CDC's report states, "For the 1,025 cases with reported source of infection, pet cage birds accounted for 719 cases (70%)..."
These significant percentages prompt questions to your agency. These are, what regulations must an employer comply with to ensure that employees are fully informed of the possibility of contracting psittacosis? What safeguards does OSHA have in place to ensure minimal risk to employees and how does OSHA currently enforce protection of employees whose job it is to handle birds?
Enclosed you will find an article about the prince George's County case and some information on psittacosis from the Centers for Disease Control. I would appreciate your answers to the questions I have posed as soon as possible and I thank you for your assistance.
Mary Beth Sweetland, Researcher
Centers for Disease Control: Psittacosis Surveillance, 1975-1984, Issued June 1987. [Out of Print]
Standard Interpretations - Table of Contents|