8-Health risks, waste disposal and decontamination

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.

A common factor for many of the health hazards (e.g. micro-organisms, carcinogens 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.

General principles
For fish researchers

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

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. These should be consulted to see if incidents relevant to a study have been reported.

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 21 November 2023

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