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Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is necessary, but not a solution

Posted to the IUF website 07-Mar-2006

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This information sheet is not intended to provide technical information on the kinds of PPE required by workers faced with risk of exposure to avian influenza. Such information should be obtained by workers through their unions from the appropriate government authorities.

Agricultural and food workers must have access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to reduce the risks associated with biological hazards like avian influenza (H5N1). Workers can be infected with the avian influenza virus through direct contact with the blood, feces or bodily fluids of infected birds. This means that suitable gloves (such as disposable lightweight nitrile or vinyl gloves; or heavy duty rubber gloves that can be disinfected).

We also know that workers can be infected with the avian influenza virus if they inhale dust particles that are contaminated with the feces of infected birds. This means that appropriate “air purifying” respirators must be worn by workers to reduce the risk of infection. Workers also need appropriate eye protection, such as indirectly vented safety goggles, to prevent dust getting into their eyes.

But the real question is: if the employer provides masks, gloves and boots, are workers safe? The answer is no. There are 6 basic reasons for this:

The main point is that PPE is a collective bargaining issue, not just a technical issue. Workers need to collectively bargain to ensure that:

These are just some of the many concrete issues that workers need to negotiate with employers concerning the use of personal protective equipment. But they must be part of much comprehensive measures to reduce the risk of exposure to avian influenza. To do this workers need to be organized, workers’ representatives need to be informed, and the issue of PPE must be treated as one part of a larger set of safety measures that are needed in the workplace. For these safety measures to be effective, workers need unions, and unions need to bargain to make sure it all the necessary steps are taken to fulfill workers’ health and safety rights.

For more information see Fact Sheet 17: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from the IUF-ILO Health, Safety and Environment: A Series of Trade Union Education Manuals for Agricultural Workers (2004).