A Safety Guide for Outdoor Workers
After a volatile, and for some parts of the country, record-breaking winter, we have finally escaped from the long reach of winter, and summer is right around the corner. AllOne Health has created a guide for working outdoors this time of year that includes helpful information and tips about seasonal allergies, poison ivy, mosquitoes, and ticks. Preparing adequately for these challenges can go a long way toward keeping everyone at your workplace safe and productive. Feel free to share this guide with your employees or colleagues who work outside this time of year.
Seasonal allergies, (such as hay fever and allergic rhinitis), affect at least 75% of the population at least once in their lives, and 10-25% of people are affected annually, according to The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. The symptoms of seasonal allergies (nasal congestion, itchy and watering eyes, sneezing, sore throat) are very similar to those of the common cold. Considering that allergy season directly follows the winter cold and flu season, this can be an extremely trying stretch of time for many people. Working in cold weather poses its own unique challenges and when spring arrives, workers must make a quick adjustment to confront allergy season.
Dr. Clifford Bassett, a noted allergist, speaking to New York Magazine said “this year’s [allergy] season will be one of the toughest in years.” He went so far as to call what we’re seeing a “pollen tsunami”.
In addition to the effect that winter weather patterns have on spring allergy season, global warming and pollution can play a significant factor in the amount of pollen produced, said Dr. Bassett. The increase of carbon dioxide in the air can cause plant life to produce three to four times the amount of pollen and the pollen itself is then “super-charged” from the greenhouse gases.
Seasonal allergies will affect every person differently, and if you have questions about how to effectively treat your allergies, contact your primary care physician or an allergist. However, for the majority of individuals there are a number of steps you can take to manage allergy season. The Mayo Clinic has a well-rounded list of tips for staying on top of your allergies:
- Monitor pollen forecasts. Most weather websites also include a pollen forecast, helping you to stay aware of when pollen levels are high. Knowing when a worksite will be facing a particularly bad pollen day, allows workers to take preventive measures and can go a long way toward preventing symptoms and keeping workers healthy and productive.
- Outside work that will stir up allergens and dust will also increase a worker’s exposure to pollen. If you work outside, ensure that you are using proper personal protective equipment to reduce your exposure to these allergens. For example, dust masks can serve as protection from inhaling pollen. For more intensive allergen exposure over an extended amount of time, a respirator may be a good option.
- After work, (or even in some cases midway through the day), workers should shower and change clothing. This will remove residual pollen from the skin and clothing that could continue to cause allergy symptoms even after leaving the worksite.
- Additionally, there are many over-the-counter allergy medicines commercially available. Antihistamines are the most common form of seasonal allergy management. They are available in many forms including pills, nasal sprays, and eye drops. Non-sedating antihistamines (e.g. Claritin, Zyrtec, Allegra) should be used during the day and when working. Sedating antihistamines (e.g. Benadryl) that will cause drowsiness should not be taken while on the job and should be reserved for use at bedtime or on days off.
Seasonal allergies are a problem for millions of people, and severity can vary widely from individual to individual. Thankfully, there are numerous ways we can manage our exposure to allergens and treat symptoms, so that we can go on enjoying the beautiful spring weather.
Poison ivy (as well as poison oak and poison sumac) is an allergic reaction to the plant oil (urushiol). According to WebMD “up to 85% of Americans are allergic to poison ivy…” and transmission can occur three ways: direct contact, contact with something else that has been in direct contact (pets, other people, tools, etc.) and airborne from the burning of the plant. The resultant rash can be extremely itchy and irritating. The severity depends on the extent of the exposure and also, how allergic the individual actually is to the urushiol. Contrary to popular belief, the rash itself is not contagious. Only direct contact with the plant oil can cause the rash. This means that when a new rash develops in a different part of the body, it could be due to a delayed reaction from the initial contact, or from a second exposure to something that touched the oil initially such as clothing or tools.
AllOne Health Associate Corporate Medical Director Brian Morris, MD, JD, MBA, mentions another factor to consider with the spread of poison ivy: “[T]he spread of the rash has to do with variable amounts of oil and the variable protectiveness of skin. Skin protectiveness is generally related to skin thickness. Wherever one gets the most oil on the most vulnerable area of skin (e.g., thin eyelid skin), that area will break out first. Where the skin is thicker (e.g., the soles of the feet) or where there is less oil, the rash may not appear for several days — so it only appears to be spreading.”
To protect workers from being affected by these poisonous plants, the CDC recommends:
- Limiting exposed skin: Wearing long sleeves and pants may not seem ideal for hot weather work, but they will prevent the oil from contacting the skin.
- Wash clothes and equipment after use: Cleaning gear and washing clothing after potential exposure to these plants is paramount to limiting the chances of being exposed to the urushiol.
- Never burn these plants: Burning poison ivy will release the urushiol components into the air, and if inhaled, it can cause a severe allergic reaction in the lungs, which would be a much more severe problem than just a simple skin rash.
If an employee has a known exposure to poison ivy, there are products available to wash off the oil, and these can be highly effective in preventing or minimizing the rash (e.g. Technu, Zanfel). In the event of an allergic reaction due to poison ivy, use anti-itch creams and lotions such as calamine, antihistamine, or hydrocortisone type topical preparations, or take oral antihistamine medications to reduce swelling and itchiness.
Nothing can ruin a beautiful spring day faster than being swarmed by mosquitoes and being forced to either retreat inside or huddle around a citronella candle. While some people may be seemingly unaffected by mosquitoes, others seem to have a target painted on them. Recent studies have investigated what causes these individual differences and have been able to pinpoint some of the reasons.
In an article on WebMD that aggregated multiple scientific studies, it was found that genetics account for 85% of a person’s predisposition to mosquito bites. Quoted in the article, Dr. John Edman of the Entomological Society of America mentions that “[m]osquitoes can smell their dinner from an impressive distance of up to 50 meters...” He goes on to explain that producing a greater amount of carbon dioxide will attract mosquitoes as a result. This is a particularly salient point for those who work outdoors regularly. Workers will be exerting themselves throughout the day, thus producing a greater amount of carbon dioxide, and attracting mosquitoes. Combine this with an area where mosquitoes are typically found, such as low lying, swampy areas, and a worksite can become inundated with mosquitoes.
So how do we protect ourselves from bothersome mosquitoes? Here are a couple of options to keep the mosquitoes at bay:
- DEET: The most commonly used protective method is chemical based repellants such as those that contain DEET. Sprays with DEET in them have traditionally been the most popular form of mosquito repellant.
- Non-chemical options: There are many natural options for mosquito repellants that include, sprays with lemon eucalyptus oil, citronella candles, and clip on devices that emit sound frequencies.
In the United States we are fortunate that mosquitoes do not pose a huge threat to our health. Malaria was eradicated in the United States in 1950s, and there are relatively few cases of the West Nile Virus each year. However, if you are travelling to certain foreign countries for work, or are responsible for such programs, it is important to work with an expert in the field of travel health for direction on preventing mosquito-borne illnesses.
If bitten by a mosquito, there are a couple of treatment options for managing the bite:
- Topical medicines: These include calamine lotion, antihistamine creams, and topical hydrocortisone products, which will reduce redness and itchiness.
- Over-the-counter medicines: Much like their use for seasonal allergies and poison ivy, antihistamines are effective at treating mosquito bites. Remember to use a non-sedating antihistamine while at work.
Ticks, unlike mosquitos, are sometimes difficult to spot and even harder to feel when they attach to your skin. Without proper self-examination it can be extremely difficult to notice ticks that have attached to you. The longer a tick remains attached to the skin, the greater the chance of contracting a tick-borne illness such a s Lyme Disease. Here are some techniques for keeping ticks off of your body:
- Tuck in clothing: Tucking your pants into your socks, and your shirt into your pants can prevent ticks from gaining access to your skin.
- Stay on paths: Ticks are often found in grassy and wooded areas and walking through those areas can give ticks the chance to latch on to you as you pass by. Staying on a well-traveled path will reduce the chance that ticks are able to reach you.
- Wear light colored clothing: This will make it easier to spot ticks if they do get on your clothing and will help you to remove them before they can bite.
- Inspect yourself when coming back inside: Taking a close look at your body after coming from an area where ticks are present is an important prevention technique. Observe your skin closely, and take the time to ensure there are no ticks are on your body.
In the event that you are bitten by a tick follow these steps, and view the CDC’s page on tick removal:
- Remove the tick: Using a clean pair of tweezers, grasp as close to skin and mouth of the attached tick as possible and pull up perpendicular to the skin. This will increase the chances of removing the tick in its entirety. Avoid squeezing the body of the tick as this could increase the risk of transmitting a tick-borne illness.
- Dispose of the tick: The CDC recommends “submersing it in alcohol, placing in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet.”
- Monitor the bite area: Keep an eye on the area where you were bitten. If a rash develops (especially a ‘bulls-eye’ type rash) and/or you develop symptoms such as fever, fatigue, or joint or muscle pain, visit a doctor to be tested for a tick-borne illness. If a tick was attached for more than 24 hours, the risk of a tick-borne illness is greatly increased. In this circumstance consult with a physician regarding the use of an antibiotic (e.g. Doxycycline) to prevent a tick-borne illness such as Lyme Disease.
If you would like more in-depth information on tick bites, AllOne Health has produced a free webinar that serves as a complete guide to ticks. To view this free webinar, please click here.