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Working with soil and surface water, especially after high rainfall, can expose workers to melioidosis.

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Working with soil and surface water, especially after high rainfall, can expose workers to melioidosis.

What is melioidosis?

Melioidosis is a tropical disease caused by bacteria called Burkholderia pseudomallei which live naturally in the soil. In Queensland, melioidosis occurs mainly in north Queensland but can occur in other parts of the state. It is usually seen during the wet season, especially after high rainfall, when the bacteria can be found in mud and surface water.

Melioidosis can occur:

  • if the bacteria enter through a break in a person's skin (e.g. a cut or puncture wound)
  • from inhaling the bacteria in the air (e.g. during wet and windy weather or from using a high-pressure washer or compressed air to clean off mud)
  • from ingesting contaminated water.

Melioidosis can cause:

  • mild to severe respiratory illness with pneumonia
  • septicaemia (an infection of the bloodstream)
  • mild to severe infection of the skin and soft tissues
  • infection of the bones, joints, internal organs and brain.

Who is at risk?

Melioidosis is a risk for workers who have contact with soil and surface water in endemic areas, especially after high rainfall. This includes:

  • manual labourers
  • construction workers
  • gardeners and horticultural workers
  • agricultural workers
  • flood recovery workers
  • emergency services workers.

Most healthy adults do not become ill after exposure to the bacteria. However, people with personal risk factors such as diabetes, chronic lung or kidney disease, heavy alcohol use, advanced age, cancer or those experiencing other medical conditions or treatments that lowers immunity are at increased risk of infection. Workers with personal risk factors should be encouraged to discuss this with their manager and doctor. If a worker becomes sick after contact with wet soil or muddy water, they should tell the doctor about their work.

Managing the risk

Eliminating exposure is the most effective way to protect workers, however this may not always be possible. Where the risk cannot be eliminated, it must be minimised.

Personal hygiene practices

Workers should adopt personal hygiene practices.

  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating, drinking and smoking, after contact with soil and muddy water and after removing personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • If using a waterless hand sanitiser, make sure it contains an alcohol content of at least 60 per cent. Use only on visibly clean hands and wash your hands with soap and water at the first opportunity.
  • Check your skin before starting work and cover any cuts and other broken skin with a clean, dry dressing. If you sustain a wound at work, clean and cover it straight away.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke when working with wet soil and muddy water.
  • If wet soil or muddy water gets on your skin or in your eyes, nose or mouth, wash the area thoroughly.
  • Wash or shower after finishing work.

Workers must be provided with adequate washing facilities (PDF, 0.57 MB). This should include clean running water, soap and paper towel or an air hand dryer. Field workers should be provided with portable hand washing facilities. Use handwashing signage to remind workers to wash their hands. Workers must also be provided with first aid facilities (PDF, 0.48 MB), clean eating facilities and drinking water.

Information, training, instruction and supervision

Provide workers with information about:

  • health risks from contact with soil and surface water
  • safe work procedures
  • selection and use of PPE
  • hand washing practices.

Personal protective equipment

Workers should wear PPE when working with wet soil and muddy water. This should include gloves, protective clothing and enclosed footwear. A properly fitted (PDF, 0.86 MB) particulate respirator (e.g. a disposable P2 respirator or higher) should be worn if exposed to aerosols of muddy water and wet soil. A surgical-type mask does not protect against infection.

Take care to avoid heat stress when wearing multiple items of PPE, especially when working in hot and humid conditions.

More information

Contact Workplace Health and Safety Queensland on 1300 362 128 for information on managing infectious diseases at work. If a person is infected with an infectious disease at work, this must be notified to Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.

Contact Queensland Health on 13HEALTH (13 43 25 84) for information on melioidosis. Seek advice from your general practitioner or local public health unit if you have concerns about possible exposure to melioidosis.