A web-based survey was designed to estimate the risk of work-related injuries and illnesses in marine mammal workers and volunteers. With the support and consultation of the Marine Mammal Commission and the National Marine Mammal Fisheries Service, the questionnaire was made available via the World Wide Web from December 2001 to September 2002. A paper-based version of the same questionnaire was made available to participants of the Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals (November 28- December 3, 2001, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) and the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine (May 4-8, 2002, Albufeira, Portugal), as well as to individuals upon request. An electronic mail notice posted on the Marmam listserv encouraged participation. Survey participants were asked to describe their contact with marine mammals and injuries sustained or illnesses acquired during the time in which they came in contact with marine mammals. From descriptions provided by participants, we hoped to identify common illnesses affecting those working around marine mammals and to describe the nature and severity of those illnesses.
A total of 483 unique responses were returned, 413 of which were collected via the Internet. Fifty-nine percent (282/483) of the respondents reported having contact with marine mammals through research, 29 percent (141/483) through rehabilitation, 10 percent (52/483) associated with zoo and aquaria work, and 2 percent (10/483) through recreational and therapeutic "swim-with-the-dolphin" programs. Fifty percent (243/483) of the respondents reported having suffered a traumatic injury caused by a marine mammal; 45 percent of those reporting a traumatic injury (109/243) characterized their wound as severe--deep wound, deep wound requiring stitches, or fractured bones. Most respondents (403) reported direct contact with live marine mammals; of these, 25 percent (102/403) reported having a skin rash or reaction during the time in which they worked with marine mammals. Fifty seven percent of those skin reactions (58/102) appeared subsequent to marine mammal contact. Illnesses reported commonly by survey participants included: sealfinger (Mycoplasma spp., Erysipelothrix rhusiophathiae), viral dermatitis (poxvirus, herpesvirus), bacterial dermatitis (Pseudomonas spp., Staphylococcus aureus, Mycobacterium marinum), and non-specific contact dermatitis. Illnesses reported less commonly were tuberculosis, leptospirosis, brucellosis, serious sequelae to sealfinger, pneumonia, and conjunctivitis. Associations of injury and illness with duration of time spent working with marine mammals and the amount of safety training received by workers and volunteers are being evaluated. These data will be used to recommend preventive procedures to reduce the risk of injury and illness associated with marine mammal work.