In November 2019, an abattoir worker contracted Q fever.
Health risks of Q fever
Q fever is a bacterial infection that can cause a severe flu-like illness. Symptoms begin about 2–3 weeks after contact with the bacteria and include:
- high fevers and chills
- severe ‘drenching’ sweats
- severe headaches, often behind the eyes
- muscle and joint pains
- extreme fatigue.
For some people, Q fever can severely affect their health and ability to work for many years. Some people develop hepatitis, pneumonia, chronic infections, heart problems or chronic fatigue.
How Q fever is transmitted
Q fever is typically transmitted to humans from infected animals including cattle, sheep and goats; cats or dogs; and even native animals such as kangaroos. People usually get Q fever by:
- breathing in the bacteria that is in air or dust
- handling the tissues of infected animals: for example, if birthing, slaughtering or butchering infected animals
- herding, shearing or transporting animals
- drinking infected unpasteurised milk.
Occupations at risk
- Abattoir workers.
- Farm and dairy workers.
- Stockyard workers.
- Livestock transporters.
- Sheep shearers, wool classers, pelt and hide processors.
- Veterinary workers.
- People who work with raw animal products, particularly reproductive organs including laboratory personnel.
- Workers involved in rendering.
- Council/road workers who collect roadkill.
Even people not working directly with animals can be at risk, such as office and maintenance workers at Q fever-risk workplaces, visitors to these workplaces and people who live or work nearby.
If you’re a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU), you must:
- provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of your workers and contractors; and visitors and members of the public, so far as is reasonably practicable
- consult with your workers and contractors when identifying health and safety risks at your workplace and deciding on appropriate risk control measures to prevent Q fever.
Who to notify of Q fever
You must notify:
- WorkSafe Tasmania about workplace incidents relating to Q fever, including if one of your workers contracts Q fever. Notify WorkSafe.
- Biosecurity Tasmania (external link): 1800 675 888
- Public Health Services (external link): 1800 671 738
Managing the risk of Q fever
If your workplace is at risk of Q fever, you must have risk control measures in place for your workers, contractors and others who may be exposed to the disease. These options include:
- implementing a pre-screening and vaccination program
- using a particular workplace design
- using safe work practices.
People may be immune to Q fever and cannot get the disease if they have ever had:
- a vaccination against Q fever
- a test to say that they are immune
- or they have been previously diagnosed by a medical practitioner as having had Q fever.
If someone doesn’t know if they have had the disease or if they have been previously vaccinated against Q fever, then ask them to have a test to check if they are immune.
You should ask everyone — workers, contractors, sales representatives, buyers, council workers, essential service workers and members of the public — to show proof of immunity status to Q fever before allowing them into your workplace.
If they cannot demonstrate Q fever immunity, you should refuse them entry to your workplace. They will require a vaccination to protect them from Q fever.
Pre-screening and vaccination
Q fever vaccination is a high-order risk control measure to eliminate the risk of contracting Q fever.
Vaccinations should be done by doctors registered as Q fever vaccinators. Find a registered vaccinator at the Australian Q Fever Register: Australian Meat Processor Corporation (external link).
Your pre-screening and vaccination program might include:
- screening new workers during induction
- ensuring eligible workers are vaccinated before starting at your workplace
- after immunity is established (that is, 15 days after the vaccination, not after the initial skin ‘prick’ test during screening), start them in high Q fever risk work areas.
If a worker either declines or is not eligible to be vaccinated following medical advice, you should:
- provide respiratory protection: minimum is a disposable P2 respirator
- provide appropriate personal protective clothing, such as overalls/coat and rubber boots
- encourage appropriate personal hygiene procedures. See Safe work practices below
- only allow the person access to the low risk Q fever work areas.
People under the age of 15 and pregnant women should consult with a registered Q fever vaccinator for further information.
You should identify high risk work areas where workers are more likely to be exposed to Q fever, such as:
- kill floors
- livestock transport vehicles
- yards and pens
- offal rooms
- skin sheds
- rendering areas
- handling foetal calves (slink rooms).
Install appropriate ventilation and dust suppression systems in these areas to help reduce dust and other airborne particles from spreading. Ventilation systems should have the intake and exhaust vents separated to prevent recirculation of contaminated air.
Provide appropriate washing and changing facilities near these areas to avoid cross-contamination.
Safe work practices
- Provide information, instruction, training and supervision about Q fever so your workers can perform their work safely and without risks to their health.
- Arrange for personal clothing to be stored away from any work clothing that may get contaminated. Work clothing should not be taken out of the workplace.
- Prohibit eating, drinking, smoking, and nail-biting in animal holding or processing areas. Require workers to thoroughly wash their hands before eating, drinking, smoking in designated areas, before going to the toilet and at the end of each shift.
- Clean and disinfect work areas regularly and ensure drainage is adequate. Use a low pressure water system to minimise airborne aerosols.
- Decompose (using soda ash) and bury animal by-products that are not suitable for processing.
- Implement an appropriate first aid program to ensure workers with open wounds are treated quickly.
- Muzzle dogs that are used to move livestock to prevent cross contamination.
- Implement an ongoing maintenance program that includes routinely inspecting ventilation and drainage systems and wash facilities.
- Pasteurise or boil milk.
In the meat industry:
- train workers with appropriate knife skills to reduce damage to the udder and the rectum to reduce potentially contaminated airborne particles from the release of milk and faeces respectively.
- maintain the integrity of the animal organs when they are removed and lowered to the eviscerating table
- wash stock on the race entering the kill floor with low pressure hoses to reduce the release of potentially contaminated airborne particles.
Australian Q Fever Register: Australian Meat Processor Corporation (external link): Find a Q-Fever vaccine provider or to register immune workers
Biosecurity Tasmania (external link): 1800 675 888
Public Health Services (external link): 1800 671 738