Snake handling course – Everything you need to know about handling venomous snakes

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Every workplace is responsible to prepare and enforce strict procedures when dealing with dangerous snakes in the workplace, this would be through a snake handling course which would include informing, instructing, training and supervising staff. Working with snakes can be extremely hazardous as their behaviour is difficult to predict and can change at any moment! Bites from snakes may range from minor cuts with minimal bleeding to large avulsions by large pythons e.g. African Rock Pythons (Python natalensis) to envenomations which could lead to permanent disfigurement and death. According to Section 8 of the Occupational Health & Safety Act employers must ensure a safe working environment eliminating hazards and where this is not possible mitigate against employee injuries. You can’t eliminate snakes from the wild as you would completely destroy the feeding chain eliminating a lot of other “more attractive” species. Employers should therefore enrol their staff on a snake handling course to safely deal with these hazards i.e. methods to safely catch and relocate snakes found in or around the workplace, effective First Aid training to adequately treat snakebites to ensure workplace safety. The employer must also ensure that he has supplied his employees with the relevant Personal Protective Equipment / Snake Handling Equipment which would include snake sticks, tongs, boots, tubes, buckets and safety goggles. A snake handling course and First Aid training would go a long way to ensure safe snake handling techniques and appropriate snakebite treatment in the event of envenomation.

Section 14 of the Occupational Health & Safety Act describes the roles and responsibilities of the employees to their employers. This section would require staff to comply with workplace procedures as laid out by their employer. Every single employee is responsible for taking steps to ensure their own safety and those around him as far as is reasonably practicable. When the aim is to ultimately ensure safety in the workplace, the employer and employee has to work together. When encountering a snake be sure to ensure that you take the appropriate steps as you were trained in your snake handling course.

How to deal with snake bites 

Snake envenomation is not an everyday occurrence and therefore often overlooked as an emergency. Combined with lack of proper statistics, lack of interest and little literature, people are often caught off guard when faced with a snakebite incident. Unfortunately, it is always the victims that suffer from life altering damage or death due to a lack of proper First Aid training in the prehospital environment. When bitten by a Black Mamba victims have been unconscious in under 5 minutes, if quick medical intervention is not applied this could soon lead to death! Please note that other victims only receive antivenom hours after the bite, everyone reacts differently to a bite and there is a range of factors that plays a role e.g. amount of venom injected, activity of the time of the bite, previous medical conditions, even the first aid applied could cause more damage if done incorrectly! It is therefore critical that you ensure that your First Aid training provider carries the appropriate accreditations and qualifications! When dealing with animals like venomous snakes medical assistance could be hours away. Ensure that you train yourself and your staff how to effectively treat snakebites with confidence. What you do in the first couple of minutes following a snakebite could save a victim.

What To Do When Bitten By a Snake

The following steps should be followed in the event of a snakebite:

  • Move the person to safety to prevent another bite
  • Stay calm. Fear could hasten the effect of the snakebite.
  • Remove any restricting clothing which might become a problem when swelling does occur e.g. rings, bracelets, tight clothing etc.
  • Apply a pressure bandage (neurotoxic bites only). Start at the distal point and wrap the bandage towards the torso. Check circulation before and after bandaging by assessing the capillary refill. If it is too tight you risk additional injuries and compartment syndrome
  • Immobilize the affected limb. This should slow down the rate of venom spread
  • Transport the patient to an appropriate hospital as soon as possible.
  • Should there be any life-threatening bleeding immediately control the bleeding with pressure bandages
  • If difficulty in breathing or respiratory arrest occur assist the patient’s breathing
  • Venom in the mouth should be rinsed out
  • Venom on the skin should be wiped off with a cloth
  • Venom in the eyes should be rinsed out with a bland liquid. Clean water is usually the liquid of choice. Rinse the eye by having the victim standing on his knees with his head held back. Pour water onto the eyeball but prevent the venom in the one eye spilling into the second eye when washing it out. Another method is to place the victim’s head underwater and have him opening his eyes.


  • Do not waste time with procedures that don’t work e.g. suction apparatuses, suction by mouth, incisions into the bite site, amputation of affected body parts, application of ice packs or electrocution
  • Don’t apply tourniquets unless it is a Black Mamba bite and you are very far from a hospital. Tourniquets cuts off the blood supply completely and may lead to amputations if kept on for too long
  • Do not try and kill or catch the snake for identification purposes.
  • Do not apply pressure bandages for snakes you can’t identify or for snakes that are not neurotoxic

What to Keep in Your Snakebite First Aid Kit

Most of the equipment needed in the event of a snakebite can be found in a standard First Aid Regulation 7 kit. Stay far away from sucking equipment sold at most First Aid equipment suppliers, research has shown that they are 0.02% effective in removing venom from the bite site! The following equipment should be included when you suspect that you might encounter a snake at home or in the workplace:

  • Alcohol swabs – To clean open wounds
  • CPR Mouthpieces – Incase of respiratory arrest due to neurotoxic envenomations
  • Crepe Bandages (100mm) – to use as a pressure bandage for neurotoxic bites and / or used to immobilise the affected limb
  • Eye Bath – or a device to assist in rinsing out eyes when the venom is spat at a victim
  • Eye Patch – to reduce light sensitivity
  • Saline 0.9% Sodium Chloride 200ml drip bag – Used to rinse the eye as it is sterile
  • Triangular bandage – to immobilise the limb against the body
  • Gloves – to prevent blood contamination
  • Scissors – to remove clothing or cut bandages
  • Emergency Space Blanket – To be used when a patient goes into shock

Ensure that your employees have completed a First Aid training course before you expect them to administer the correct First Aid to snakebite victims

How to Identify Venomous Snakes in South Africa

Southern Africa has over 170 different species of snakes with only 12 species in possession of venom strong enough to be lethal. There are a number of other species that can inflict painful bites but they have never killed their victims to date. It can be extremely difficult to identify all the species of snakes especially in a 1 day course and is for this reason that we focus on teaching candidates how to easily identify the deadly species on our Snake Handling Course. We highly recommend that anyone who might have to deal with snakes at home, holiday or the workplace attends this course!

Below we will give some pointers on how to identify our indigenous deadly species:

  • Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepsis) – Grey to brown snake growing over 3,5m in length. When threatened it spreads a small hood and opens its mouth to reveal a black mouth.
  • Green Mamba (Denroaspis angusticeps) – Solid green snake with a few yellow scales. Green mambas have green backs and bellies and there is no black scales anywhere. They grow to around 1.8m in length.
  • Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)- Short stocky snake with ‘V’-shaped markings pointing towards the tail. These snakes are ambush predators and very well camouflaged. Their average size is between 90-1.2m average but can get slightly longer.
  • Gaboon Adder (Bitis gabonica) – A very fat snake with blocks and triangular shapes on the body. The colour is constructed of various shades of pastel. It is extremely well camouflaged in a pile of leaves. Gaboon Adders average around 1.2m in length.
  • Forest Cobra (Naja melanoleuca) – A Forest Cobra almost looks like two different snakes with a fawn colour on the front end of the body and pitch black towards the back. They are found in the Northern parts of KZN and can grow over 2.7m.
  • Cape Cobra (Naja nivea) – This Cobras comes in a variety of colours including yellow, cream, brown, black and a speckled phase. They are found in the drier parts of the country and grows to around 1.4m although bigger specimens are encountered.
  • Snouted Cobra (Naja annulifera) – The Snouted Cobra comes in 2 colour phases, the one is a dirty bronze/brown colour and the other is a black and white banded phase. This snake spreads an impressive hood when encountered. They can grow to around 2.7m.
  • Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica) – This colour has a brown body colour with an orange or pink belly. There are black bars in the neck and this cobra can spit its venom.
  • Black Spitting Cobra (Naja nigricollis) – A rare species of cobra found mostly in the drier parts of the Northwestern Cape. Its is pitch black and can spit its venom
  • Rinkhals (Hemachatus Haemachatus) – Rinkhals comes in two colour varieties they first one is a black and orange/yellow banded variety, the second variety is solid olivey brown to black. The belly is solid black apart from 1 – 3 white/yellow bands in the neck. A rinkhals can spit its venom but does this in a “throwing” motion although it can still spit even if restrained.
  • Common Boomslang (Dispholidus typus) – These snakes are tree living snakes and are sexually dimorphic with males being green with or without black markings and females are brown.Juveniles are grey with bright emerald green eyes. They grow to around 1.5m in length. Male specimens from the Cape have black backs with green or yellow bellies.
  • Vine Snake (Thelotornis capensis)- Vine snakes are cryptically coloured to look like tree branches. They are extremely well camouflaged and difficult to spot in shrubs and trees. When disturbed they will inflate their necks. Vine snakes grows to around 1-1.2m.

Safe Snake Handling Techniques

To ensure workplace safety employers needs to ensure their staff are competent in removing problem snakes from the workplace to ensure the safety of the employees in the area as well as the animal. A lot of people get bitten while picking up snakes that they can’t identify, using the incorrect equipment, incorrect methods or while trying to kill the snake. It is crucial that employers choose accredited providers with the relevant experience to teach their employees safe snake handling techniques using the correct snake handling equipment and adequate and up to date First Aid training to ensure the correct snakebite treatment protocols are followed.

When encountering a venomous snake in the confinement of a workplace it is important to keep other staff members away from the immediate area. Keep an eye on the snake while someone collects your equipment, you can also throw a blanket or other type of light material over it to give it a false sense of security to prevent a quick escape. The safest way to capture a snake is to guide the snake with a hookstick into a snake tube with a screw on lid. The snake will see the tube as a hole to escape into and quickly crawl into the tube. When the snake is inside you then quickly screw on the lid. Once inside the tube both you and the snake will be completely safe from harm and the snake can be moved out of the direct area and released elsewhere. We do not recommend anyone handling venomous snakes and it is a job best left to the experienced. However we can teach you and your employees how to safely handle venomous snakes, how to identify venomous snakes and the relevant First Aid training to ensure that the candidates can confidently treat snakebites in the prehospital setting. 

Absolute Health Service’s Snake Handling Course is presented by one of two registered Paramedics with BTech qualifications in Emergency Medical Care and over 32 years of prehospital emergency care experience. They also share over 23 years of venomous snake handling experience! It is accredited by the Durban University of Technology and candidates will receive 7 CPD points (2 Ethics). It is also accredited by the South African Institute of Safety and Health (SAIOSH) and Health and Safety Professionals would receive 2 CPD points. Whether you need a snake handling course in Cape Town or a snake handling course in Johannesburg we have you covered as we offer this course from all of our offices nationally and we also travel for on-site training as well as international clients!

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