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Surprise animal encounters can cause serious harm to workers

Whether it’s dogs guarding their homes or bears searching for food, animals can be unpredictable and lash out at nearby workers
By Linda Johnson
| Canadian Occupational Safety

Whether they work in a big city or remote wilderness, many workers live and work around animals. Encounters with wild animals have gone up in recent decades and as humans seek to occupy more of their habitat, incidents can only be expected to rise further. Other animals, such as domestic dogs, cannot be avoided by workers who, for example, deliver packages or mail in residential areas. By knowing why wild and domestic animals strike out at humans and what to do to avoid animals in the first place, workers can limit the possibility of an encounter and of being injured.

It’s important for workers to always remember that, by nature, most wild animals want to avoid humans, says Chris Baldwin, a manager of conservation services in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Fisheries and Land Resources.

Certainly, there are exceptions. Hungry, diseased or injured animals as well as animals that have become habituated to humans can lose their intuition — their natural avoidance triggers — and do things they wouldn’t normally do, including approaching a human. But in most cases, animals are very fearful of humans and do everything they can to avoid us, he says.

Many of the conflicts are caused by humans, often because we unintentionally attract them. Animals are drawn to work sites by the food and waste humans leave exposed. On work sites, food should be kept tightly stored and garbage put away in double plastic bags or animal-resistant bins.

We also inadvertently create areas that draw in carnivores, says Kim Titchener, founder of Edmonton-based Bear Safety and More. When we clear the land and create open, grassy areas, we attract carnivores who want to feed on berry bushes and grasses and on the prey species that are also drawn to the new open areas. These cleared areas also provide new pathways for animals.

“Wildlife like the path of least resistance: They’re not going to expend calories walking through thick muskeg, wetlands and thick forest when there’s a nice, clear path like a power line. They will stick to the power line; they’ll go down the linear feature that’s an easier path,” she says.

Wild animals need their space and workers must be careful not to violate it too much, Baldwin says. When they see wild animals, especially younger ones, people tend to want to get closer. But, where there are young animals, the parents are usually nearby and can become quite aggressive, whether they’re bears, moose, caribou or another animal.

“When animals have offspring, their defensive mechanisms become even greater. Keep your distance. If you want to watch, use binoculars instead of trying to get a selfie. All too often folks ignore that,” he says. “It’s up to humans to recognize that wild animals are wild and because they are wild, they can be unpredictable. It’s up to us to use our common sense to avoid any of the risks that may occur as a result of our interference with where they live. That’s something we should always remember.”

All workers who work in animal habitat should receive bear and wildlife safety training and learn how to be perceptive of their surroundings, says Titchener.

“They should be aware that, every day when they go to work in these natural habitats, they’re keeping an eye out for wildlife as they work.”

BEARS

The surest way to prevent workers from being harmed by a bear is to train them to know how to avoid an encounter in the first place, says Frank Ritcey, provincial co-ordinator at Kamloops, B.C.-based WildSafeBC.

Remember that bears, like other animals, generally don’t want to come in contact with people and, when given warning of humans approaching, will move away on their own, he says.

While watching out for bears, workers should be able to recognize and look for signs that they are in the area: Overturned logs, diggings, bear scat (droppings) and fresh claw marks on trees. Companies can make use of wildlife alert programs; for example, WildSafeBC has a program tied into the province’s 24-hour hotline. All conflicts with wildlife are recorded on a map people can access on its website, under “WARP” (Wildlife Reporting Alert Program). If bears are known to be in an area, take precautions — move the work site or plan a different route to avoid these areas.

Whenever bears might be near, workers should carry a walking stick to look bigger. Most importantly, they should make noise or blow a whistle to let the animals know they’re in the area.

“The human voice travels a long way. Bears recognize it, and they know human begins are coming. They will want to get out of the way,” Ritcey says.

If workers cannot avoid going into bear habitat, such as fishery workers doing salmon surveys, they can minimize the risk of encounter by not going there in the evening or early morning when bears are most active.

The right way for a worker to react to a bear encounter depends on the bear’s behaviour and whether the attack is defensive or non-defensive, Titchener says. In a defensive encounter, more common with grizzly than with black bears, a person surprises the bear. The animal may think it is under attack and will seek to defend its cubs or a food source. The bear will do a lot of huffing and show some aggression. In this case, immediately start backing away slowly and calmly. Get the bear spray ready in case the animal comes towards you. A person who does not have bear spray should lie down and play dead.

In a non-defensive attack, much more common with black bears than grizzlies, the bear has no cubs or food source to protect, but it becomes interested in a person out of curiosity or because the person is carrying food. The bear is not agitated and approaches quietly and calmly.

“In this case, you want to stop, stand your ground and show aggression. Try to make yourself look big. Stand up on a rock or a log. Open up your jacket. Yell, scream and throw rocks or sticks,” says Titchener.

All workers working in bear country should know how to use, and be carrying, a can of bear spray. The canister releases a cloud of pepper spray to a distance up to 10 metres. On contact, the spray causes the bear’s eyes and skin to sting and will make breathing difficult. It is an effective way to stop an attack but also leaves the bear unharmed. Bear spray is equally effective against cougars, wolves, moose and deer.

The can of bear spray should always be readily accessible, Titchener adds.

“Bear spray is great to have but no good to you if it is in a backpack. It has to be physically on your body, where you can just grab it. They make belts that go over your body or, if you wear coveralls, there are ‘scat’ belts that go overtop your clothes.”

Another deterrent workers can use in bear country is the bear banger, a hand-held device that looks like a large pen. The user aims the device upwards, pulls a lever and an explosive charge goes off in the air, making a loud gunshot-style noise and causing the animal to run away.

Managers in remote mining camps in Labrador will often have bear monitors — a designated employee who is posted outside to watch around the clock for bears and alert others when one is spotted, Baldwin says.

Bears can also be deterred from a wilderness work site by the use of portable electrical fencing. This creates a perimeter around the work camp. When the animal touches the charged wires, it gets an electric shock, which is unpleasant but not harmful.

In very rare cases, a lethal deterrent may be needed to protect a site from wildlife.

OTHER CARNIVORES

An approach by a cougar, coyote or wolf will never be defensive. In an encounter with one of these animals, workers should respond in the same way as in a non-defensive bear situation. React with aggression. Never run — predators instinctively see something that runs as prey and will start to chase after it.

Cougars are found mostly in Western Canada but also in the Prairies, southern Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.

“You need to fight back with everything you have. Fortunately, most cougar attacks end up in favour of the person,” Ritcey says. “Make sure you have bear spray. It’s very effective against cougars.”

Fortunately, cougar attacks are rare, as are coyote attacks. Coyotes, which live in areas across Canada, generally attack only when they have previously been fed by people, he says. Because of coyotes’ small size, injuries are usually not serious, and a person has a good chance of fighting one off.

The wolf’s range extends across Canada, with the exception of parts of the Maritimes. Very few attacks by wolves cause death. In fact, during the 20th century, there were no documented cases of healthy wolves killing or seriously injuring a person in North America.

“Very seldom do wolves attack. They’re very wary of humans, and they tend to shy away,” Ritcey says.

MOOSE AND CARIBOU

While moose can become aggressive when they feel cornered or threatened, they are generally shy and afraid of humans. If they see or hear a person, they will try to go in the other direction.

However, moose — along with deer, elk, caribou and black bears — do present a major hazard on highways for workers in many parts of Canada, Baldwin says.

“An adult moose weighs 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. In a small vehicle, there are many recorded incidents of fatalities and other accidents in (Newfoundland) that are related to moose and caribou — mainly moose — that put folks out of work.”

This problem is more prevalent in different times of the year, adds Baldwin. In the spring, adult females have their calves and drive away their yearlings — those born in the previous year.

“These younger animals tend to wander, and they’re not as educated as the adults. They become prone to moose-vehicle collisions. Then, in the fall, in the rutting season, there’s a lot of movement among animals. We see them on the highways during dawn and dusk. Those are the critical times.”

Moose and other animals can be very unpredictable. A moose standing at the side of the road may suddenly bolt in front of a passing vehicle. Animals often travel together and the crossing of one may prompt others to follow. Moreover, once an animal has crossed the road, it may turn around and go back.

One of the most important precautions workers should take to avoid collisions with moose is to slow down when driving at night. Slower speeds require less time to come to a full stop and will reduce the force of an impact. Most wildlife collisions occur on clear nights and on long straight road sections when drivers are less cautious and tend to speed.

DOGS

Many outdoor workers are at risk of being bitten by a dog, but among those at greatest risk are postal carriers and delivery workers. According to Canada Post, there are about 500 dog attacks against carriers every year.

Dog attacks, even by small ones, can result in serious physical injuries that can be painful and leave the person unable to perform basic tasks for a while. Moreover, an attack can produce lingering psychological effects. A person may be reluctant to return to work or even go outside for fear of dogs. It may be emotionally difficult to come to terms with the severe scarring that some encounters produce.

All workers who may encounter dogs during their work need to receive training on how to deal with them. They should remember to always be vigilant and never wear headphones. They should know dogs often attack out of stress or instinct to protect themselves, their offspring or owners. An illness such as rabies can also cause a dog to attack.

Workers should be trained on how to assess each situation and to judge whether a dog is likely to attack. If so, the worker should get to a safe place. Some signals of a possible attack include pulled back ears, stiff tail, flicking tongue and intense stare.

If confronted with an attacking dog, workers should face the dog and back away. Never run. Any carrying bag or case they may have on them should be used as a barrier. If workers regularly face the risk of a dog attack, safety managers may want to equip employees with products they can use to protect themselves.

One such product, marketed by Bulli Ray Occupational Dog Bite Safety, based in Ocala, Fla., is a dog-bite stick. The worker holds out the stick, essentially a ball at the end of a long rod, for the dog to bite. This keeps the dog at a distance and buys time for the worker to get to a safe place or for the owner to secure the dog.

With the “pop-action umbrella,” the worker opens and closes the reinforced umbrella several times to startle a dog and cause it to back away. “Sprayshield,” which contains citronella oil rather than pepper spray, is sprayed at or near the nose of the attacking dog and is intended to distract the dog and not cause it harm.

Linda Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who has been writing for COS for seven years.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of COS. 

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