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Livestock Confinement

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Global economic forces have contributed to the industrialization of agriculture (Donham and Thu 1995). In the developed countries, there are trends toward increased specialization, intensity and mechanization. Increased confinement production of livestock has been a result of these trends. Many developing countries have recognized the need to adopt confinement production in an attempt to transform their agriculture from a subsistence to a globally competitive enterprise. As more corporate organizations obtain ownership and control of the industry, fewer, but larger, farms with many employees replace the family farm.

Conceptually, the confinement system applies principles of industrial mass production to livestock production. The concept of confinement production includes raising animals in high densities in structures that are isolated from the outside environment and equipped with mechanical or automated systems for ventilation, waste handling, feeding and watering (Donham, Rubino et al. 1977).

Several European countries have been using confinement systems since the early 1950s. Livestock confinement started to appear in the United States in the late 1950s. Poultry producers were first to use the system. By the early 1960s, the swine industry had also started to adopt this technique, followed more recently by dairy and beef producers.

Accompanying this industrialization, several worker health and social concerns have developed. In most Western countries, farms are getting fewer in number but larger in size. There are fewer family farms (combined labour and management) and more corporate structures (particularly in North America). The result is that there are more hired workers and relatively fewer family members working. Additionally, in North America, more workers are coming from minority and immigrant groups. Therefore, there is a risk of producing a new underclass of workers in some segments of the industry.

A whole new set of occupational hazardous exposures has arisen for the agricultural worker. These can be categorized under four main headings:

  1. toxic and asphyxiating gases
  2. bioactive aerosols of particulates
  3. infectious diseases
  4. noise.


Respiratory hazards are also a concern.

Toxic and Asphyxiating Gases

Several toxic and asphyxiating gases resulting from microbial degradation of animal wastes (urine and faeces) may be associated with livestock confinement. Wastes are most commonly stored in liquid form under the building, over a slatted floor or in a tank or lagoon outside the building. This manure storage system is usually anaerobic, leading to the formation of a number of toxic gases (see table 1) (Donham, Yeggy and Dauge 1988). See also the article “Manure and waste handling" in this chapter.

Table 1. Compounds identified in swine confinement building atmospheres



Isopropyl propionate


Ethyl formate

Isovaleric acid




Acetic acid


Methyl acetate





Heterocylic nitrogen compound






Hydrogen sulphide


Butyric acid


Propionic acid

Carbon dioxide



Carbon monoxide

Isobutyl acetate

Propyl propionate




Diethyl sulphide

Isobutyric acid


Dimethyl sulphide




Isopropyl acetate



There are four common toxic or asphyxiating gases present in almost every operation where anaerobic digestion of wastes occurs: carbon dioxide (CO2), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and methane (CH4). A small amount of carbon monoxide (CO) may also be produced by the decomposing animal wastes, but its main source is heaters used to burn fossil fuels. Typical ambient levels of these gases (as well as particulates) in swine confinement buildings are shown in table 2. Also listed are maximum recommended exposures in swine buildings based on recent research (Donham and Reynolds 1995; Reynolds et al. 1996) and threshold limit values (TLVs) set by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH 1994). These TLVs have been adopted as legal limits in many countries.

Table 2. Ambient levels of various gases in swine confinement buildings


Range (ppm)

Typical ambient concentrations (ppm)

Recommended maximum exposure concentrations (ppm)

Threshold limit values (ppm)


0 to 200





1,000 to 10,000





5 to 200





0 to 1,500




Total dust

2 to 15 mg/m3

4 mg/m3

2.5 mg/m3

10 mg/m3

Respirable dust

0.10 to 1.0 mg/m3

0.4 mg/m3

0.23 mg/m3

3 mg/m3


50 to 500 ng/m3

200 ng/m3

100 ng/m3

(none established)


It can be seen that in many of the buildings, at least one gas, and often several, exceeds the exposure limits. It should be noted that simultaneous exposure to these toxic substances may be additive or synergistic—the TLV for the mixture may be exceeded even when individual TLVs are not exceeded. Concentrations are often higher in the winter than in the summer, because ventilation is reduced to conserve heat.

These gases have been implicated in several acute conditions in workers. H2S has been implicated in many sudden animal deaths and several human deaths (Donham and Knapp 1982). Most acute cases have occurred shortly after the manure pit has been agitated or emptied, which may result in a sudden release of a large volume of the acutely toxic H2S. In other fatal cases, manure pits had recently been emptied, and workers who entered the pit for inspection, repairs or to retrieve a dropped object collapsed without any forewarning. The available post-mortem results of these cases of acute poisoning revealed massive pulmonary oedema as the only notable finding. This lesion, combined with the history, is compatible with hydrogen sulphide intoxication. Rescue attempts by bystanders have often resulted in multiple fatalities. Confinement workers should therefore be informed of the risks involved and advised never to enter a manure storage facility without testing for the presence of toxic gases, being equipped with a respirator with its own oxygen supply, ensuring adequate ventilation and having at least two other workers stand by, attached by a rope to the worker who enters, so they can effect a rescue without endangering themselves. There should be a written confined-space programme.

CO may also be present at acute toxic levels. Abortion problems in swine at an atmospheric concentration of 200 to 400 ppm and subacute symptoms in humans, such as chronic headache and nausea, have been documented in swine confinement systems. The possible effects on the human foetus should also be of concern. The primary source of CO is from improperly functioning hydrocarbon-burning heating units. Heavy accumulation of dust in swine confinement buildings makes it difficult to keep heaters in correct working order. Propane-fuelled radiant heaters are also a common source of lower levels of CO (e.g., 100 to 300 ppm). High-pressure washers powered by an internal combustion engine that may be run inside the building are another source; CO alarms should be installed.

Another acutely dangerous situation occurs when the ventilation system fails. Gas levels may then rapidly build up to critical levels. In this case the major problem is replacement of oxygen by other gases, primarily CO2 produced from the pit as well as from the respiratory activity of the animals in the building. Lethal conditions could be reached in as few as 7 hours. Regarding the health of the pigs, ventilation failure in warm weather may allow temperature and humidity to increase to lethal levels in 3 hours. Ventilation systems should be monitored.

A fourth potentially acute hazard arises from build-up of CH4, which is lighter than air and, when emitted from the manure pit, tends to accumulate in the upper portions of the building. There have been several instances of explosions occurring when the CH4 accumulation was ignited by a pilot light or a worker’s welding torch.

Bioactive Aerosols of Particulates

The sources of dust in confinement buildings are a combination of feed, dander and hair from the swine and dried faecal material (Donham and Scallon 1985). The particulates are about 24% protein and therefore have the potential not only for initiating an inflammatory response to foreign protein but also for initiating an adverse allergic reaction. The majority of particles are smaller than 5 microns, allowing them to be respired into the deep portions of the lungs, where they may produce a greater danger to health. The particulates are laden with microbes (104 to 107/m3 air). These microbes contribute several toxic/inflammatory substances including, among others, endotoxin (the most documented hazard), glucans, histamine and proteases. The recommended maximum concentrations for dusts are listed in table 2. Gases present within the building and bacteria in the atmosphere are adsorbed on the surface of the dust particles. Thus, the inhaled particles have the increased potentially hazardous effect of carrying irritating or toxic gases as well as potentially infectious bacteria into the lungs.

Infectious Diseases

Some 25 zoonotic diseases have been recognized as having occupational significance for agricultural workers. Many of these may be transmitted directly or indirectly from livestock. The crowded conditions prevailing in confinement systems offer a high potential for transmission of zoonotic diseases from livestock to humans. Swine confinement environment may offer a risk for transmission to workers of swine influenza, leptospirosis, Streptococcus suis and salmonella, for example. The poultry confinement environment may offer a risk for ornithosis, histoplasmosis, New Castle disease virus and salmonella. Bovine confinement could offer a risk for Q fever, Trichophyton verrucosum (animal ringworm) and leptospirosis.

Biologicals and antibiotics have also been recognized as potential health hazards. Injectable vaccines and various biologicals are commonly used in veterinary preventive medical programmes in animal confinement. Accidental inoculation of Brucella vaccines and Escherichia coli bacteria has been observed to cause illness in humans.

Antibiotics are commonly used both parenterally and incorporated in animal feed. Since it is recognized that feed is a common component of the dust present in animal confinement buildings, it is assumed that antibiotics are also present in the air. Thus, antibiotic hypersensitivity and antibiotic-resistant infections are potential hazards for the workers.


Noise levels of 103 dBA have been measured within animal confinement buildings; this is above the TLV, and offers a potential for noise-induced hearing loss (Donham, Yeggy and Dauge 1988).

Respiratory Symptoms of Livestock Confinement Workers

The general respiratory hazards within livestock confinement buildings are similar regardless of the species of livestock. However, swine confinements are associated with adverse health effects in a larger percentage of workers (25 to 70% of active workers), with more severe symptoms than those in poultry or cattle confinements (Rylander et al. 1989). The waste in poultry facilities is usually handled in solid form, and in this instance ammonia seems to be the primary gaseous problem; hydrogen sulphide is not present.

Subacute or chronic respiratory symptoms reported by confinement workers have been observed to be most frequently associated with swine confinement. Surveys of swine confinement workers have revealed that about 75% suffer from adverse acute upper respiratory symptoms. These symptoms can be broken down into three groups:

  1. acute or chronic inflammation of the respiratory airways (manifested as bronchitis)
  2. acquired occupational (non-allergic) constriction of the airways (asthma)
  3. delayed self-limited febrile illness with generalized symptoms (organic dust toxic syndrome (ODTS)).


Symptoms suggestive of chronic inflammation of the upper respiratory system are common; they are seen in about 70% of swine confinement workers. Most commonly, they include tightness of the chest, coughing, wheezing and excess sputum production.

In approximately 5% of workers, symptoms develop after working in the buildings for only a few weeks. The symptoms include chest tightness, wheezing and difficult breathing. Usually these workers are affected so severely that they are forced to seek employment elsewhere. Not enough is known to indicate whether this reaction is an allergic hypersensitivity or a non-allergic hypersensitivity to dust and gas. More typically, symptoms of bronchitis and asthma develop after 5 years of exposure.

Approximately 30% of workers occasionally experience episodes of delayed symptoms. Approximately 4 to 6 hours after working in the building they develop a flu-like illness manifested by fever, headache, malaise, general muscle aches and chest pain. They usually recover from these symptoms in 24 to 72 hours. This syndrome has been recognized as ODTS.

The potential for chronic lung damage certainly seems to be real for these workers. However, this has not been documented so far. It is recommended that certain procedures be followed to prevent chronic exposure as well as acute exposure to the hazardous materials in swine confinement buildings. Table 3 summarizes the medical conditions seen in swine confinement workers.

Table 3. Respiratory diseases associated with swine production

Upper airway disease

Irritant rhinitis
Allergic rhinitis

Lower airway disease

Occupational asthma
Non-allergic asthma, hyperresponsive airways disease,
or reactive airways disease syndrome (RADS)
Allergic asthma (IgE mediated)
Acute or subacute bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Interstitial disease

Chronic interstitial infiltrate
Pulmonary oedema

Generalized illness

Organic dust toxic syndrome (ODTS)

Sources: Donham, Zavala and Merchant 1984; Dosman et al. 1988; Haglind and Rylander 1987; Harries and Cromwell 1982; Heedrick et al. 1991; Holness et al. 1987; Iverson et al. 1988; Jones et al. 1984; Leistikow et al. 1989; Lenhart 1984; Rylander and Essle 1990; Rylander, Peterson and Donham 1990; Turner and Nichols 1995.

Worker Protection

Acute exposure to hydrogen sulphide. Care should always be taken to avoid exposure to H2S that may be given off when agitating an anaerobic liquid manure storage tank. If the storage is under the building, it is best to stay out of the building when the emptying procedure is going on and for several hours afterwards, until air sampling indicates it is safe. Ventilation should be at the maximum level during this time. A liquid manure storage facility should never be entered without the safety measures mentioned above being followed.


Particulate exposure. Simple management procedures, such as the use of automated feeding equipment designed to eliminate as much feed dust as possible should be used to control particulate exposure. Adding extra fat to feed, frequent power-washing of the building and installing slatted flooring that cleans well are all proven control measures. An oil-misting dust-control system is presently under study and may be available in the future. In addition to good engineering control, a good-quality dust mask should be worn.

Noise. Ear protectors should be provided and worn, particularly when working in the building in order to vaccinate the animals or for other management procedures. A hearing conservation programme should be instituted.



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