The term 'zoonotic disease' is one that has entered the public vocabulary in the past 18 months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for those working with livestock, zoonoses aren't a new concern. A recent health & safety prosecution highlights the serious consequences for businesses if the risks are not managed properly.

What are zoonotic diseases?

The World Health Organisation defines a zoonotic disease (also known as a zoonosis or zoonoses) as "an infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans". Aside from COVID-19, there are other zoonoses that can cause serious outbreaks of disease in humans, such as Ebola or salmonella.

On a local level, the HSE estimates that there are around 40 potential zoonoses in the UK, and approximately 300,000 people are potentially exposed within their occupations. The most common diseases, Orf and ringworm, account for 4,300 and 12,500 cases annually.

What are your duties?

As with any risk to employees or visitors to premises, employers must comply with the terms of the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974. Under section 2, there is a general duty on employers to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the "health, safety and welfare at work" of all employees. There is a mirror duty under section 3 of the Act, in respect of non-employees – which may include contractors, customers, or visitors.

In addition, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations also apply. Zoonoses are caused by micro-organisms that fall within the Regulations, and so require all employers (and self-employed people) whose employees may be exposed to such substances to assess the risks, prevent or control exposure, and to ensure proper training for employees in the risks and control measures.

Importantly, HSE guidance notes that zoonoses can be transmitted from animals to humans during visits to farms: regular or extended exposure in the course of employment is not the only situation where transmission may occur. Petting animals, touching contaminated surfaces such as gates, fences, and even shoes, or eating without proper handwashing could lead to transmission – and, potentially cause harm to visitors if they become unwell as a result. This is particularly so for vulnerable visitors such as young children.

It is therefore important that all businesses that include contact between humans and animals – such as horse riding activities, petting areas, or 'hands on' farm experiences – consider the risks of exposure to zoonotic diseases, and the steps needed to address those.

What are the possible consequences of a breach?

First and foremost, exposure to zoonoses could lead to visitors or employees becoming unwell. This in itself could cause longer-term harm, in the form of serious illness or long-term health effects for affected individuals; as well as a potential loss of reputation to your business.

In addition, a recent prosecution has highlighted that HSE may take action against organisations that are not taking appropriate steps to protect employees and visitors. The Spencer Academies Trust, an education provider in England, pled guilty earlier this month to breaches of s2(1) and s3(1) of the 1974 Act, in relation to a number of animals including goats, pigs and rabbits on one of its premises. HSE's investigation found that the Trust had failed to provide adequate supervision and washing facilities to protect employees, pupils and visitors; staff were not appropriately trained; and, there was no suitable housing for the animals to minimise the risk of disease transmission. The Trust was fined £20,000, plus costs, following the guilty plea. It should be noted that the level of fine is determined with reference to the business' turnover and so fines for similar incidents could be higher for businesses who have a higher turnover.

Addressing the risks

Where public interaction with animals is part of the business, the Access to Farms Industry Code of Practice is relevant. The code of practice was developed in consultation with HSE and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, and it offers useful advice on how risks should be assessed, and some of the practical control measures that may be appropriate.

The health & safety team at Brodies has extensive experience of advising and supporting rural businesses. Please contact a member of our team to find out how we could help you. You can also download our free health & safety app here.

Contributors

Kate Donachie

Legal Director

Alison Waddell

Associate

Jack Barratt

Trainee Solicitor