Six months ago, none of us had ever heard of the Zika virus; now the pressure is on to find out as much as we can and take steps to protect our workers and our businesses. Fortunately, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have released guidance that can make up the basis for a company Zika action plan. You can and should read the document here.
To hit on some of the high points, the virus, which is spread by mosquitoes, had its first wide-spread outbreak in Brazil, but is spreading through Central and South America, Mexico, and parts of the Caribbean, including U.S. territories. Cases have been reported in the U.S. and officials say it is a matter of when, not if, the virus is more widespread here. There is a government website that tracks any new information on Zika.
Employers have an obligation to provide a safe work environment and that includes a responsibility to take steps to protect workers from Zika. This means taking a combination of actions to keep work sites from becoming breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry the virus and training or communication to make sure workers understand the risks and what they should do to protect themselves.
Here are some of the actions that OSHA recommends:
- Provide workers with, and encourage them to wear, clothing that covers their hands, arms, legs, and other exposed skin. Consider providing workers with hats with mosquito netting to protect the face and neck. This can be loose-fitting clothing when work is being done in the heat. Note: This may be considered Personal Protective Equipment and it is up for interpretation whether companies are obligated to provide specialized clothing like netting under the PPE regulations.
- Provide appropriate insect repellent. The guidance explains what types may be used.
- Get rid of sources of standing water (e.g., tires, buckets, cans, bottles, barrels) whenever possible to reduce or eliminate mosquito breeding areas. Note: the guidance does not talk about spraying for mosquitoes in large outdoor sites, but employers may want to consider this.
- If requested by a worker, consider reassigning anyone who indicates she is or may become pregnant, or who is male and has a sexual partner who is or may become pregnant, to indoor tasks to reduce their risk of mosquito bites.
- Train workers and communicate:
- The potential hazards that the Zika virus presents;
- The symptoms of the virus;
- The importance of wearing proper clothing and using repellent;
- The need for good housekeeping (removing trash or other potential breeding grounds;
- Special risks that the virus may present to pregnant women or workers who travel to known outbreak areas.
- Review and update your Bloodborne Pathogen policies and training to include potential exposure from mosquitoes.
A couple of side notes here – First, Zika isn’t the only disease that is carried by mosquitoes. Policies and training that address mosquitoes will also help prevent workers from West Nile and a host of other viruses. Second, there is a lot that we still don’t know about Zika and the information has changed several times since the first major outbreak. For example, it was thought that only the Aedes species mosquitoes, which also carry Yellow Fever, spread Zika. Now scientists believe that the Asian Tiger mosquito also spreads it, greatly expanding the potential scope of outbreak areas.
Some of the steps above are only common sense. Others may seem like overkill. However, given the rapid spread of Zika and all of the questions surrounding its impacts, it pays to be very aggressive in protecting your workforce.