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Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV)

Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV) is closely related to the rabies virus and is fatal. Only vaccinated people who have been trained in the care of bats should ever handle them. You can be infected through bites or scratches from bats. It is a serious workplace hazard for people working with bats or in and around bat habitats.

Why is ABLV so serious?

This virus affects the central nervous system. All bats in Australia have the potential to be infected with ABLV although not many are (less than one per cent). The virus lives in their saliva (and Nervous system) and can live on after the bat is dead. The behaviour or appearance of a bat is not a helpful guide to let you know it is infected. While there is a low chance of being infected with ABLV, the consequences of being infected are extreme. Dogs, horses and other animals can get infected with ABLV too, so keep them away from direct contact with bats.

Workers most at risk include:

  • veterinarians and their staff
  • zoo workers
  • wildlife officers
  • bat rescue and rehabilitation carers
  • fauna surveyors
  • bat scientists
  • electrical workers who remove bats from powerlines
  • laboratory personnel who handle bat tissues or live lyssaviruses
  • anyone who has occupational contact with bats.

You will not be exposed to ABLV risks just by working near a bat colony. It does not travel through the air or settle on surfaces. Working near bat droppings comes with other risks.

You also have a general biosecurity obligation in managing the spread of ABLV.

What are the risks of ABLV?

ABLV is deadly to humans if not prevented.

There is no available treatment for ABLV once symptoms have started.

ABLV and what to do if you’re exposed

  • If bitten or scratched - immediately wash the wound, gently but thoroughly, with soap and running water for at least 15 minutes, and then apply an anti-virus antiseptic (e.g. iodine or alcohol).
  • If the exposure was on your face (eyes, nose or mouth) flush the area thoroughly with clean water
  • Get immediate medical attention. Vaccination or a booster shot may be needed to prevent onset of fatal disease.
  • Notify us that a worker has been exposed.

How do I manage the risks?

Workers and management can work together to reduce the risks of hazards at work.

Do not touch bats without vaccination against rabies and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as puncture-proof gloves.

For workers

As a worker, you have a responsibility to take reasonable care of your own health and safety and make sure that your work doesn’t have a negative impact on the health and safety of others.

For businesses

For employers or persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), it’s your duty to manage the risks of contracting ABLV, as outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

You must provide and maintain a working environment where the employees, contractors and visitors are not exposed to hazards:

  • Ensure safe systems of work are in place.
  • Implement safe work practices and provide information, training and supervision.
  • Encourage an environment of consultation and cooperation.
  • Provide personal protective equipment (PPE), and ensure there are systems for PPE inspection, maintenance, cleaning and storage.

Following the four-step risk management process below will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws. You can also use the practical advice in the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).

Four steps to manage risk

The first step is to identify possible hazards.

  • Inspect your business. Look around and think about your workplace, note where your work environment or processes create the risk of exposure to ABLV.
  • Talk to your workers to find out if they have any health and safety concerns. A confidential survey could give workers who are less likely to speak out in public an opportunity to provide feedback.
  • Review available information. Read the relevant legislation and codes of practice. Research how other workplaces in your industry have managed this or similar risks. Use your own records of reported infections, sick leave, and other notes.

Find more information on how to identify risks in How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB) .

Do a risk assessment to establish:

  • if there is a risk to you or others
  • whether any effective control measures are already in place
  • what actions you could take to control the risk
  • how urgently you should act.

A risk assessment can include looking at:

  • the nature of your work and how this exposes workers and others
  • what inductions and training you have in place
  • if you have a suitable first aid kit, training and emergency plan in place
  • whether the work is required or if it can be rescheduled, reorganised, or restructured to reduce the risk
  • seasonal considerations (e.g. dry seasons when bats pass out from dehydration)

Use this risk assessment template (DOCX, 0.02 MB) to guide and record your assessments.

A control is any measure that reduces a risk. Sometimes, a single control might be enough to eliminate a risk, like removing a tripping hazard from the work environment. Other risks, like infected wildlife need several control measures. Include your workers in any decisions about risk control. Their experience will help you choose control measures that work on paper and in practice.

Prioritise the controls that either remove the hazard or reduce the risk most effectively. Use the hierarchy of controls to understand the types of controls you can put in place and how effective they will be. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. Eliminate the risks as much as possible through good work design.

Diagram outlining the hierarchy of controls

Implement control measures in this order.

Level 1: Get rid of the harm and prevent the risk.

Difficult to do with wildlife.

Level 2: Replace the hazard with something less harmful, separate people from the hazard, or change work processes or the physical work environment.

  • use rabies vaccinations
  • teach staff safe bat handling
  • use mechanical tools (drones, claws, shovels, etc) to pick up dead bats
  • restrict access to bats under care or on display (barriers, signage, locks)
  • have a biosecurity plan if you have a bat colony near your property or are a bat carer
  • fruit growers: use small-aperture safe netting to minimise bats getting tangled
  • vets: use the guidance in Biosecurity Queensland’s Australian bat lyssavirus guidelines for veterinarians
  • fauna surveyors: don’t put unprotected hands into tree hollows, crevices or other areas where bats may be roosting, and consider using an inspection camera or drone to look for wildlife inside areas that can’t be easily seen
  • wildlife rescue and care: use a thick towel to cover bats during rescue, isolate bats with neurological signs of illness from other bats in care and seek veterinary advice, use calming methods for pups such as teats, and minimise non-essential contact with bats
  • electrical workers: use a no-touch technique (such as tongs or a mechanical claw) to remove bats from powerlines and arrange for a wildlife carer to receive rescued live bats and orphaned pups
  • tourism operators: tell tourist groups about ABLV risks and keep them from close contact with bats (for example by positioning groups away from the direct flight path of bats emerging from caves).

Rabies vaccination

Workers at occupational risk of exposure to ABLV require a course of three doses of rabies vaccine – called ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis’. Keep accurate vaccination records for your workers.

Speak to your doctor about this vaccination and keeping it up to date. The Australian Immunisation Handbook contains the current recommendations.

Level 3: Use administrative controls to reduce exposure (such as limiting time spent in a hazardous area) or use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect people from harm.

  • provide any information, training, instruction or supervision that is necessary to protect people from ABLV risks
  • develop a plan for managing potential ABLV exposures, and provide appropriate first aid equipment and training
  • provide suitable PPE and ensure that it is worn by at-risk workers (e.g. puncture-proof gloves, long pants and shirts made from a tough material, a face shield).

Risk management is an ongoing process. You should check regularly to make sure the control measures are working, and that staff are using them properly. Review training and work processes. If you find problems, go through the steps again, review the information, and decide whether you need new controls.

Under the work health and safety laws you must review controls:

  • when you become aware that a control measure is not working effectively
  • if there is an incident or near miss
  • before a change that might create a new risk
  • when you find a new hazard or risk
  • when your workers tell you that a review is needed
  • after a health and safety representative requests a review.

You can find a list to help you find any issues in the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB) .