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Planning an animal study must include a risk assessment, because of both the potential dangers to health from working directly or indirectly with animals or animal material. It is easy to forget the extent of the group of people who may be affected by physical and chemical hazards produced during animal studies.

Common health risks include:

  • Allergy to animals, bedding and nesting material, feed, chemicals and latex
  • Physical injury: bites, kicks, scratches and cuts, heavy lifting (e.g. feed and bedding, chemical containers, cages), the operation of machinery such as autoclaves and washing machines, and the use of sharp instruments
  • Infections and zoonoses from animals, pests, pets, feed, bedding, water, the ventilation plant, instruments and experimental infections. Personnel may also carry infections which may be unwittingly transmitted to research animals.
  • Hazards due to chemicals that are part of the study, including potentially bioactive substances which are to be tested, and the facility’s own chemicals (e.g. disinfectants, detergents, anaesthetic agents, laboratory chemicals and liquid nitrogen), for which there always should be a Technical Datasheet easily available. Chemicals to be tested in an animal study pose the greatest health risk since their effects are, by definition, often largely unknown at the onset of the experiment.
  • Ionising radiation from isotopes and X-ray machines
  • Other environmental factors such as the effects of humidity and room temperature on personnel
  • Psychological impact related to the care and use of animals in scientific procedures, and engagement in the ethical debate surrounding the issue, including exposure to the mass media.

A common factor for many of the health hazards (e.g. micro-organisms and radiation) is that they are difficult to detect. This places a great responsibility upon those who are involved in the hazardous activity, or who have enough knowledge to predict it, and those who are charged with the tasks of containment after accidents and subsequent decontamination. Openness is vital.

Steps to reduce health risks to both humans and animals include:

  • A general discussion of the potential risks associated with a new study, being realistic about the facility’s level of competence and infrastructure
  • Risk assessment of possible exposure to irritant, allergenic or carcinogenic compounds, radiation and infectious agents – and evaluation of effective measures to prevent or minimise this
  • Evaluation of the necessary security levels for the experiments (e.g. Biosafety Levels 1-4)
  • Identification, and prior purchase, of sufficient protective clothing and equipment
  • Notification to the authorities of animal movements, disease outbreaks, and the use of genetically altered animals or micro-organisms
  • The production of SOPs and a Contingency Plan which cover all relevant health and safety challenges
  • Regular health monitoring of animals and staff, including an evaluation of their vaccination history
  • Provision of staff who (a) are familiar with the research protocol and the animals being used; and (b) can monitor, and provide veterinary treatment for, these animals within and outside normal working hours
  • Identification of qualified maintenance staff, who are used to working in controlled biomedical facilities in protective clothing. This includes people who are prepared to enter the building out-of-hours for unscheduled repair work, such as plumbers, ventilation engineers, electricians and security staff.
  • Plans for correct waste disposal and decontamination. These must cover:
    • Animal cadavers, with special routines for genetically altered or infectious material
    • Bedding
    • Urine and faeces
    • Tank water

Much of this waste may be potentially hazardous, possibly invoking new routines and extra expenditure for the facility. It may be particularly expensive to dispose of the carcasses of large animals, large numbers of animals such as fish, or large volumes of effluent or tank water. Even if waste material is not classified as hazardous, it may pose a risk to waste disposal personnel if it is not suitably contained. For example, dust from laboratory animal bedding may trigger allergy or asthma if transported in unsealed containers.

A culture which encourages self-reporting of accidents as they occur, and damage control, should be cultivated. The area affected should be cordoned off and signage should be used which is understood by all those who enter the building (if necessary in several languages), until the area can be decontaminated. There are procedures such as the CIRS-LAS initiative for reporting of accidents or near-accidents.

Health risks must be addressed before an experiment has started. Discussion at an early stage will help to any allay fears held by the staff. A strong culture of care will help this process. 

The question of whether the animal facility has in fact the competence and infrastructure to carry out a project is a key point which should be raised at an early stage. When additional training needs are identified, the sources of such training must be located, along with procedures to enable staff to be signed off when competence has been achieved. If training is needed or new equipment has to be acquired, clarification of who will bear the costs for this is essential.

More information

This page was updated on 16 July 2020

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