Environments in therapeutic horse programs characterized in study

Respondents consistently reported issues around temperature, moisture/humidity, dust, and airflow.
Photo by Calpastor

Some equine centers that deliver therapeutic programs might benefit by examining their strategies to minimize dust problems for the volunteers, the findings of fresh research suggest.

Kimberly Tumlin, Sa Liu and Jae-Hong Park, writing in the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health, said the foundation of healthy workplace design is an understanding of work practices.

Volunteers comprise the majority of the workforce in care centers using horses to address human health issues, they said.

“Documentation is lacking on protections for worker well-being in equestrian microenvironments which are known to have the potential for dust exposures,” they said.

The trio set out in their study to characterize space usage, safety, environmental control, and organizational practices at facilities that provide therapeutic horse programs.

Such programs are well documented to aid in social, emotional, and behavioral development, they said. They are primarily offered at non-profit facilities, relying on volunteer workers to fill staffing gaps, and many facilities are mostly or fully volunteer-run.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International reported that more than 61,600 volunteers contributed an estimated $US4 billion in volunteer hours in 2017.

“These workers are essential in offering safe interventions for individuals with special needs and usually work in teams of three volunteers and one horse.”

The study team distributed a survey internationally to centers, receiving 72 responses, 96% of which were from the United States. The number used in the analysis was roughly halved, once those that did not have an indoor or covered arena, or those who did not use volunteers, were excluded.

They found that 77% of facilities in cold or very cold areas had indoor arenas that were fully enclosed. In all, 28% of facilities in areas with a mixed-humid climate had fully enclosed arenas.

Seventy-five percent of facilities in hot-humid climates and 50% in hot-dry climates reported using covered arenas.

Concerns about the indoor environment in both arena and barn spaces were shared in nearly three-quarters of equine-assisted services facilities, with no differences based on climate designation.

Facilities in mixed-humid, hot-humid, and hot dry/mixed dry shared multiple concerns over temperature, dust, humidity/moisture, and ventilation challenges.

Dust was a concern in 43% of facilities in cold or very cold regions, and in 50% of hot humid locations.

Airborne dust sources included the footing, proximity to vehicles, and cooking, tobacco smoking/vaping, or other aerosol liberation activities.

A total of 34% of facilities did not use any type of ventilation system. On average, only 38% used fans.

Facilities chose ventilation methods based primarily on environmental temperature and humidity.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said equine-assisted services are most likely self-regulated organizations, where standards and practices are adapted for the delivery of services but worker health is not overseen by external bodies.

“Oftentimes these self-regulated organizations have complex social and political factors.

“Because volunteers in equine-assisted services do not have the protections normally provided to standard workers, developing more detailed questioning around the adoption of health and safety practices is necessitated.

“Organizationally, programs hold permanent workers to standards different from temporary or casual workers, thus perpetuating organizational discrimination in health and safety practices between groups of workers.”

The researchers said they established that volunteer workers in equine-assisted services do not follow traditional work schedules.

Survey respondents had consistently reported issues around temperature, moisture/humidity, dust, and airflow, they said.

The authors noted that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health launched their Future of Work (FOW) Initiative last year.

“The FOW Initiative highlights the importance of organizations to provide hazard-free work environments while acknowledging that exactly how these safe environments will be deployed is unclear.

“The FOW Initiative also designates volunteers as non-standard workers who may be vulnerable to unfair treatment.”

Volunteers, they said, have comprised an important workforce in therapeutic programs. The survey results can be applied to program assessments to make the case for advancements in ventilation and engineering strategies for these non-profit programs to promote healthy workspaces.

“In climates with more moisture, additional contaminates beyond particulate matter could be potential exposure sources for volunteer workers. We could expect that workers in cold locations might be more exposed to indoor pollutants than workers in hot locations.”

To evaluate this, further research to monitor indoor air contaminants needs to be conducted.

“Equine-assisted services programs have the opportunity to utilize these findings to address volunteer worker safety to ensure the health and well-being of all populations involved in the therapeutic process.”

Tumlin is with the University of Kentucky; Liu and Park with Purdue University in Indiana.

Tumlin, K.; Liu, S.; Park, J.-H. Framing Future of Work Considerations through Climate and Built Environment Assessment of Volunteer Work Practices in the United States Equine Assisted Services. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 10385. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph181910385

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here


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