Occupational Safety

Working with

 Marine Mammals and

Your Health 

Photo by Deborah Gabris

A guide for marine mammal workers and rehabilitation volunteers

For a printable double-sided brochure (in PDF format) of this information, please click here.

Important information about marine mammals

Like most animals, marine mammals can carry microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi) that can cause illness in humans.  Many marine mammals that appear healthy and normal can carry organisms that are dangerous to humans. 

Marine mammals have been shown to carry many of the pathogens we associate with food poisoning, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. Like other wildlife, seals and sea lions can shed the protozoan, Giardia, in their feces. Giardia can cause diarrhea and other symptoms in humans. In rare cases, marine mammals may be infected with very dangerous pathogens, like the rabies virus and the organism that causes tuberculosis.

Pathogens known to be transmitted from marine mammals to people

A mycoplasma found in seals can cause “seal finger” in humans. This painful and potentially serious disease can result from a seal bite or the infection of a pre-existing wound. Diligent hand washing is the best defense with infections often responding to tetracycline treatment.

Seal pox is a disease of stranded seals and can be encountered in rehabilitation centers. It can cause pox sores in humans that may persist for up to a year. There is no known effective treatment. 

Leptospirosis contracted from seals and sea lions can cause serious disease in humans.

Important information from people who work with marine mammals

A total of 483 marine mammal workers responded to a recent survey about their health. The majority of respondents identified research as their primary type of marine mammal contact.

The survey showed that injuries and work-related illnesses are common.

In fact, over half (54%) of workers reported having at least one injury or illness that they believed directly resulted from contact with marine mammals. Most were cuts, scrapes, bites, and rashes. About 1 in 10 (11%) marine mammal workers reported developing seal finger

Injury occurred in over half (52%) of workers while handling marine mammals or tissues. Of those injuries, over a third (36%) were severe (e.g. deep wound or fractured bone). 

Several dangerous infections were reported by marine mammals workers, including tuberculosis, leptospirosis, and brucellosis.

Regardless of experience and training, marine mammal workers are at risk of injury and infection.

Exposure to marine mammals can mean exposure to the infections they carry.

What you can do

Care must be taken to avoid all possible routes of exposure to marine mammal infections. Although bites and contact with existing wounds are the most common routes, infections can occur through your mouth, eyes, respiratory system and skin.

Report any animal bite, scratch, or other significant exposure to marine animal blood, saliva, or other excretions to the appropriate supervisor.

If you develop an illness or other condition that could be caused by exposure, be sure to tell your physician that you work with marine mammals.

Safety measures to prevent injury and infections:

  • Obtain the recommended training, and follow all of your institution’s safety procedures for safe animal handling.  An example of suitable safety procedures for working with laboratory animals can be found at the AAALAC website

  • Wear gloves and other protective gear when handling animals and specimens

  • Avoid contact with animals if you are ill or immunocompromised

  • Use additional safety equipment when risks of acquiring an infection are high

  • Use necropsy, husbandry and laboratory procedures that minimize the risk of cuts and injuries

  • Consult your physician before working with marine mammals if you are pregnant or have other health concerns

  • Wash hands thoroughly after animal and specimen contact 

Knowledge and careful work practices are your best defense!

For a printable double-sided brochure (in PDF format) of this information, please click here.

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