Mosquito bites are downright annoying. Caused by a mild immune system reaction to proteins in the saliva of female mosquitos, the bites can be extremely itchy. Scratching any mosquito bite can lead to infection, but some bites result in more serious complications. If the mosquito has recently fed off an infected person or animal, they may transfer a virus or parasite along with that saliva. These include West Nile, encephalitis, Dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever and—most recently—the Zika virus.
Central and South America, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean have all recently experienced an outbreak of the Zika virus. While there have been no reports of mosquitos transmitting Zika in the U.S. as of yet, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Zika can also be spread through exposure to the blood and bodily fluids of infected individuals.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently released interim guidance for employers who want to take steps to prevent or minimize the risk of Zika virus infection among their outdoor workers and other employees should a Zika outbreak occur in the States.
What is the Zika Virus?
Historically found in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, Zika virus infection began to emerge in the Americas and Caribbean in 2015. It’s generally transmitted by mosquitoes of the Aedes species. Aedes aegypti can be found in the southern U.S. and parts of the southwest. Aedes albopictus are found in the southern and eastern parts of the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one in five infected individuals will develop symptoms of the Zika virus two to seven days after they are bitten by an infected mosquito. The symptoms—which include fever, joint pain, muscle pain, headache, rash and pink eyes—are generally mild and last no more than a week. However, serious neurological and autoimmune complications have recently been reported in Brazil. Pregnant women who contract the Zika virus may give birth to babies with microcephaly, a serious birth defect of the brain. Zika can also cause vision and hearing deficits as well as impair the growth of the fetus.
What does OSHA recommend for protection?
OSHA suggests employers educate their workers about Zika virus infection. This includes the modes of transmission (mosquitoes, blood and bodily fluids) and particular dangers for pregnant women.
Employers should provide their outdoor workers with insect repellents and encourage them to wear clothing that minimizes exposed skin. You may want to provide your workers hats with mosquito netting to protect their faces and necks as well.
Extra layers during warmer weather can lead to heat-related illness. As such, employers should always provide workers with plenty of water, shaded areas and rest. They should be taught to monitor and recognize the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke in themselves and others.
Sources of standing water should be eliminated from the jobsite whenever possible to reduce or eliminate mosquito breeding areas. This includes removing tires, buckets, cans, bottles and barrels that may fill with rainwater.
If a Zika virus outbreak occurs in the U.S., consider reassigning female outdoor workers who indicate they are or may become pregnant as well as those who are male and have wives or partners who are or may become pregnant, to indoor tasks.