Avian Influenza

Appendix: Cleaning Bell Chambers Contaminated with Bird Waste or Carcasses #

With reference to avian influenza / bird flu #

Birds finding their way into towers, particularly bell chambers, has been an issue that ringers have had to deal with and try to prevent for as long as bells have been hung in towers. I find it interesting to think that back in the 1300’s some monastery servant, sexton or local labourer would have been tasked with climbing the tower with a sack and a shovel to remove sticks, nests and carcasses just as I have done. The sack would have been made of sackcloth not polyethylene, but otherwise it’s a shared human experience that links my life with one perhaps 30 generations ago.

Musings aside though, the job of clearing the sticks, feathers and carcasses is an important one and is not without its risks. At present, with avian influenza cases at a high level and special precautions and restrictions in place to try to limit its spread, we need to be more careful than ever when undertaking this least pleasant of a steeple-keeper’s tasks.

The risks involved fall into two basic categories: the mechanical and the biological. The mechanical risks are those you would still be exposed to in a pristine, newly built tower with a new ring of bells installed; trips, falls, proximity to heavy machinery with the potential to move suddenly, etc. For the purposes of this article, I will take these as read and move on to the biological risks.

As biological risks go, handling dead birds is a fairly nasty prospect. Even the dust from the feathers of a live, healthy bird can carry bacteria which cause psittacosis or other diseases. Add to this the currently increased risk of contracting H5N1 or other variants of bird flu and the need for proper precautions becomes irrefutable. This is without even mentioning such delights as post-mortem decay or droppings laden with fungi and bacteria which can cause histoplasmosis, candidiasis, cryptococcosis, St. Louis encephalitis, E. Coli, or salmonella, to name a few.

Due to these significant risks, there is a very strong case for contracting a specialist in cases where there is a great deal of contamination and this should be considered even in moderate cases.

If you need to do the work yourself, the best practice for dealing with bird waste, carcasses and nest material is fairly simple and the gist of it is to avoid any contact with the hazardous materials.

Before embarking on a cleaning mission in the tower you need to prepare your equipment. This will include:

  • FFP3 (AKA P3) filtered face masks for everyone involved in the cleaning.
  • Overalls (disposable ones are available if you don’t have your own).
  • Disposable gloves.
  • Disposable overshoes.
  • A change of clothes and shoes in a plastic bag.
  • A shovel.
  • A dustpan and brush.
  • Rags or newspaper for blocking rope holes.
  • Sturdy rubbish bags or rubble sacks.
  • Duct tape or suitable ties to seal the bags.
  • An industrial vacuum cleaner (with suitable filters etc). These can be hired and are very strongly recommended.

Before going to the tower, you need to try on and fit your mask correctly to check that everything is as it should be. FFP3 masks usually have replaceable filter units and to be effective they must seal completely to your face. If you already have a mask, the filters should, of course, be suitably new and not clogged with dust from a previous use.

Now you’re ready to go and clean up. Put your spare clothes and shoes in their bag and leave these in a suitable location where you can change as soon as possible after you finish cleaning. Put on your overalls, gloves and overshoes and start cleaning. First, maximise the ventilation in the bell chamber to blow away any dust raised. If possible, shut the access to the rooms below and block the rope holes with rags or newspaper as well, to keep the dust and dirt out.

Don’t forget that disturbing nesting birds, their eggs or their nests (when being built or used) is a criminal offence punishable by an unlimited fine and up to six months in prison. If you’re not sure about the status of a nest, it’s best to leave it alone.

The hazardous material is now carefully placed in the bags using the shovel, dustpan, and brush (with minimal dust being raised) and the bags sealed with ties or tape when full. Don’t overfill the bags either, you need to be able to get them down the tower! If a suitable vacuum cleaner is available then dust should be picked up with it at the earliest opportunity. The brush should be used only as a last resort and then sparingly and slowly.

Having completed your glamorous task, you now have to seal each bag of hazardous waste inside another clean bag. Then remove all the bags, cleaning equipment, and other detritus from the belfry to wherever is most suitable (definitely not the ringing room).

Then vacuum (or go outside and brush) any debris from your overalls.

Now retire to the churchyard and remove your overalls, overshoes, and finally gloves, placing each in a rubbish bag as you remove them and seal the bag. Now you need to wash your hands very thoroughly and then change your clothes for the spare set. Put the clothes you were wearing into the spare clothes bag and launder them at the first opportunity. Shoes should be cleaned in whatever way is most suitable.

The bags of waste cannot be put into domestic waste collections but must be taken to your local waste disposal site.

All of the above is, of course, procedure for the worst case scenario where your tower has a significant amount of hazardous material. If the mess is limited to a couple of deceased avian visitors and a whole lot of ordinary dust then you can simplify the drill very greatly although the mask, gloves and vacuum cleaner are always to be strongly recommended.

You might be tempted to skip all of the protective equipment but when it comes down to it, it’s your health that’s at risk and surely that’s worth a whole lot of trouble? Read about some of the diseases I mentioned earlier and you won’t need persuading.

Further information on the topic is available from various sources, some of which are below:

Removing and disposing of dead wild birds (HSE)

Working with highly pathogenic avian influenza virus(HSE)

Bird flu (avian influenza): latest situation in England (UK Government)

Back to Health & Safety

Disclaimer #

Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, neither contributors nor the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers can accept responsibility for any inaccuracies or for any activities undertaken based on the information provided.

Version 1.0, February 2023

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