Occupational Health & Safety

The Real Cost of Uncontrolled Bird Infestations

Ignoring a bird infestation is more than a waste of money and time. It is also an occupational hazard.

It used to be that bird infestations were frustrating simply because they forced facility managers to waste money cleaning up after a renewable source of mess. Today, we have to deal with the threat of lawsuits, as well as the day-to-day expense of bird infestation problems.

Birds do not just leave behind visually unappealing droppings; they create dangerous environments. Studies show that more than 60 diseases can be transferred from birds to human beings, sometimes with fatal results. The build-up of bird droppings opens up the potential for slip-and-fall lawsuits, not to mention every facility manager’s nightmare: OSHA, the USDA, local health boards, or other governmental organizations citing and fining your facility or shutting it down because of bird infestation or bird mess.

As hard as it is to admit, in a citation situation, OSHA might be doing you a favor. Bad press and fines aside, if facilities are permitted to continue operating while contaminated by bird droppings, there is a chance someone entering your facility could contract a serious disease and name you responsible. Worse yet, the affected person might be you or one of your co-workers.

While most people have heard of avian flu or West Nile virus, histoplasmosis and Cryptococcus have maintained a low profile despite the fact they have been popping up in the news as well. This low level of awareness keeps people from taking measures to protect themselves and leaves you responsible for protecting them.

In fact, CDC suggests that for areas known for or suspected of being contaminated by H. capsulatum (histoplasmosis)—areas “such as bird roosts, attics, or even entire buildings that contain accumulations of bat or bird manure”—signs should be posted warning of the health risk. These signs should include the name and telephone number of a contact person in case questions arise about the area. In some situations, to prevent unsuspecting or unprotected individuals from entering a contaminated area, fencing may need to be built around a property or locks put on certain doors.

Dust to Dust
We tend to brush off bird droppings as merely an eyesore, but they are the main source of disease transmission between birds and humans.While this might seem bizarre because most people do their best to avoid direct contact with fecal matter, we have to understand that as bird droppings dry, they turn to dust. People in the environment inhale the fungus and bacteria the droppings may contain.

As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and CDC explain, “[Histoplasmosis] hurts your lungs. Sometimes, it hurts other organs too, and it can be fatal if untreated. Anyone working at a job or close to places where the fungus is in the air can get this disease if you breathe in enough of it…. [S]ome jobs and hobbies that increase your risk [are] bridge inspector or painter, chimney cleaner, construction worker, demolition worker, farmer, gardener, heating and air-conditioning system installer or service person, microbiology laboratory worker, pest control worker, restorer of historic or abandoned buildings, roofer . . . .”

This list of elevated-risk jobs is fairly extensive and is by no means all-inclusive. Diseases transmitted through airborne particles can happen to anyone. For example, The News-Herald in Southgate,Mich. (September 2004) published an article about a police officer who had been hospitalized after working in Township Hall.Authorities there, knowing that people “could be infected just by walking inside the facility,” put up warning signs explaining the building’s contamination due to bird and bat droppings. For this officer, however, the warning came too late. He “had to have a portion of his lung removed. Tests were positive for histoplasmosis.”

If just one person contracts a disease and sues because of birds in your facility, a lawsuit can be truly substantial. In Palm Beach, Fla., a teacher won $1.2 million in a settlement when he contracted Cryptococcus while working at a school. The district was advised to settle because it feared a loss could exceed $3.7 million (South Florida Sentinel, March 29, 2001). The article reported the virus can live in a person for years and then suddenly become symptomatic when the individual’s immune system hits a low point.

A Multilayered Problem
The dangers that droppings produce do not stop with the possibility of disease. Droppings contain ammonia and high levels of uric acid. The acid content eats away at surfaces over time when left to sit. When the droppings dry out, they turn into a concentrated salt that, when combined with water and the existing ammonia, creates electrochemical charges that cause steel to rust. This can ruin machinery and cause a facility to endure permanent damage that scars its appearance forever.

Furthermore, if bleach is added to bird droppings as a way to clean, the ammonia will interact and spur the release of a toxic gas. Another frightening reality that many people would never consider is that the weight of accumulated droppings can put unanticipated stress on structures and cause them to collapse. This can happen faster than many realize because one pigeon can produce around 25 pounds of fecal matter in one year. One tragic example of this, as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald on Dec. 9, 2007, was an Australian man who was killed when an awning collapsed and caused the attached wall to crumble on top of him. The collapse was caused by an accumulation of pigeon excrement that had become too heavy.

When the dangers of droppings are combined with the fact that birds down power lines, become caught in machinery, contaminate pallets of food or drugs, use insulation for nesting material, and so on, it is clear that ignoring a bird infestation is not only a waste of money and time, but also an occupational hazard. The more time birds spend on your property, the more stubborn they will be when you try to get rid of them. A timely and educated response is extremely important to effective bird control.

Control Methods
Understand that the problem you must solve is not the presence of birds or their droppings; the problem is that your environment is appealing to these birds. Even if the current infestation is killed off or chased away, a new flock will fill the void if the environment is not also altered in an unappealing way.

This is why truly effective bird control does not include lethal methods or trapping. These strategies will only prolong the frustration of your situation and require a regular investment as birds return. Plus, there will probably be legal repercussions for lethal methods because they can easily and unintentionally affect the vast number of birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. You might even find yourself dealing with a new infestation: protestors. Finally, the health issues that dead birds incur make this approach both inefficient and dangerous.

Instead, take some time to research the nuisance birds. Work out what they like about the property (food, warmth, shelter, nesting materials). Place repellents near the source of these comforts. Clean up the droppings (use proper equipment to keep the particles contained and out of your lungs), nests, dead birds, and anything else that might signal to the birds that the area is their territory. Figure out where they come from and where they go when scared from their original location. If it’s on your property, prepare that location, as well, to prevent a second infestation.

Once the nature of the infestation is understood, explore the available technology and choose some strategies. When choosing products, remember that birds (like human beings) are multi-sensory. Using products synergistically to address more than one of the birds’ senses will have a much stronger reaction.

Products break down into the following categories:

Auditory devices: Ultrasonic devices produce sound waves that are inaudible to the human ear but extremely bothersome to birds, bats, and rodents. Sonic devices are audible to birds (as well as the rest of the world). They might feature distress calls or predator noises.

Visual devices: These products scare birds away visually. These products include strobe lights, bird-scare balloons, holographic tape, and predator decoys.

Taste/smell repellent: This liquid deterrent uses methyl anthranilate (derived from Concord grapes) to give birds a sensation similar to the one people experience around bleach.

Roost inhibitors: These are physical barriers to roosting sites. They can be in the form of sticky chemicals, spike strips, or netting.

Anyone who manages a facility has a responsibility to keep the work environment in good, safe condition for himself and others. Clearing a bird infestation can make a huge difference in terms of economics, morale, and most importantly, safety. Remember, if the choices are overwhelming or you do not know where to start, there are always bird control experts who will be happy to help.

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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