When you think skin protection and wellness, you probably think about sunscreen. But the sun isn’t the only hazard outdoor workers face on a daily basis – insects are an issue, too.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to take all reasonable precautions to protect workers against known hazards, including exposure to insect-borne diseases like West Nile virus, Zika virus, and Lyme disease. While it’s not possible to eradicate these hazards completely – after all, the insects that carry them are a natural part of the outdoor environment – it’s certainly possible to lower the risks.

Read on to find out why insect protection is important for outdoor workers and how you can ensure your workers remain healthy throughout the summer season.

Understanding the Hazards

Vector-borne diseases are the main hazards for workers who spend time outdoors. They’re usually spread through mosquitoes or ticks and include:

  • West Nile virus
  • Zika virus
  • Lyme disease

Let’s break each of those down.

West Nile

The West Nile virus is usually spread through mosquito bites and in 80 percent of cases shows no symptoms. While only about one percent of those infected with the virus fall seriously ill, the flu-like symptoms that occur in 20 percent of cases – things like fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle or joint pain – are enough to keep workers away from the job (see Lost Time: How Does It Add Up? for related reading).

Who is most at risk?

  • Outdoor workers, including farmers, foresters, landscapers and gardeners, painters, construction workers, and laborers
  • Entomologists and outdoor field workers
  • Workers over the age of 50 are at increased risk of severe illness
  • Those who work outdoors from July through September, and from dusk to dawn
  • Workers conducting activities near stagnant water, including pools, ponds, watering troughs, and rain barrels

Zika

Though the majority of Zika cases are travel-related, Zika-infected mosquitoes have been found in the U.S. and therefore pose a risk to workers in certain areas of the country.

Most infections are accompanied by mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, but pregnant women who contract Zika are at risk for serious birth defects in the unborn baby.

Who is most at risk?

  • Outdoor workers in the southern and southwestern United States
  • Workers near stagnant bodies of water where mosquitoes can breed
  • Pregnant women working outdoors in affected areas

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States, with more than 30,000 confirmed or probable cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2010 alone.

Lyme disease causes flu-like symptoms, but can only be transmitted if an infected tick feeds on you for 24 hours. Between 60 and 80 percent of people who are infected with the disease develop a rash. Workers who are bitten by a tick and observe a rash or feel ill should see a doctor.

Who is most at risk?

  • Outdoor workers in the northeastern and north-central United States
  • Workers on sites that have woods, bushes, high grass, or leaf litter
  • Workers active in the late spring and summer, when young ticks are most prevalent

Including Insect Protection in Your Safety Program

For most healthy workers, the risk of developing severe illness following an insect bite is low. But the symptoms that accompany West Nile, Zika, and Lyme disease can be enough to keep them away from the job for several days or more.

Including insect repellent as part of your skin protection wellness program offers a variety of benefits:

  • Reduces absenteeism and sick days
  • Improves productivity in outdoor workers
  • Encourages and promotes the use of insect repellent and best practices among workers
  • Educates workers about the hazards and risks that insects can pose
  • Fosters a work environment that openly prioritizes worker health and safety

Including this topic in your health and safety plan doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. In fact, workers can use the same techniques to control the risks for all of the noted hazards.

  • Apply repellents containing DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus on skin and clothing
  • Remember to apply repellent after sunscreen
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and socks
  • Choose light-colored clothing to easily spot ticks
  • Adjust work practices, when possible, to minimize exposure to mosquitoes and ticks

Promoting Bug Protection Among Workers

Including insect protection in your skin protection wellness program is one thing; actually promoting it to workers is another.

It’s critical that employers take an active role in encouraging the use of repellent and other practices that help mitigate insect hazards for outdoor workers.

Here are some tips.

1. Offer Comprehensive Training

Education is one of the best ways to promote safe working practices. Training should explain how vector-borne diseases are transmitted and reinforce knowledge about the risks they pose and how to manage them.

Since many workers pay no attention to normally harmless things like mosquito bites, employers must reinforce the need for workers to report any symptoms of illness that accompany bug bites received while on the job.

2. Provide Easy-to-Use (and Easy-to-Carry) Repellent

When your workers are busy, they’re far less likely to use repellent that takes a long time to apply. Single-use towelettes are a great solution for workers venturing in the field, while small spray-bottles are perfect to keep on-hand at job sites. Take care to ensure that employees know where to find the repellent when they need it.

3. Require Clothing that Protects Against Mosquitoes and Ticks

Clothing should include long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and socks.

Tucking pants into socks can be an effective way of preventing ticks from crawling up pant legs, where they can remain undetected for quite some time.

4. Implement Controls to Reduce Exposure

Since mosquitoes are most active from dusk to dawn, consider shifting work schedules to ensure workers are not outside during this time.

Eliminate standing water to decrease mosquito populations, and clean up piles of leaf litter and tall grass patches to keep ticks at bay.

Conclusion

Though insects might not seem like the biggest hazard, their bites can pack a punch. Including bug protection in your skin wellness program helps workers understand the hazards and risks, while ensuring they're prepared to deal with them effectively.