Articles | Cases

Is the ZIKA virus the new summer threat?

While experts seem to disagree whether the Zika virus will become a widespread hazard, no one can predict with absolute certainty what's going to happen. Zika is the first mosquito-borne illness known to cause a brain-related birth defect - microcephaly - if an expectant mother becomes infected.

Quoted in the May 26th edition of Health, Tom Skinner, spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says, "Based on what we've seen in years past with dengue and chikungunya, we certainly wouldn't be surprised to see Zika emerge in an area like Florida or Texas or somewhere along the Gulf Coast or the Mexico border. While those areas are likely to be a priority, we want to make sure that other states - where we know these mosquitoes can possibly transmit the virus - are prepared to the extent they can be prepared."

While employers should play an active role in educating their employees, it's important that they do not take adverse actions against women to protect against reproductive health risks. Sex-specific job restrictions for a woman with childbearing capacity are discriminatory. In guidance issued by CDC and OSHA, the CDC recommends that "[i]f requested by a worker, [an employer should] 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."

This clearly indicates that the worker should initiate the request for reassignment. It's best to educate all employees about the risks - not just women or women of childbearing age. Employers can suggest if an employee is concerned about performing certain job functions, the employee should consult with his or her doctor to determine what is best and provide the option to request reassignments.

A Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM) article, Summer, Mosquitoes - and the Zika Virus, notes that the CDC urges all organizations employing outdoor workers to be aware of the risks of exposure to Zika through mosquito bites and to train workers on how to best protect themselves.

The CDC guidance provides information on the best types of insect repellant, as well as clothing to wear. In the SHRM article, Samantha Yurman, legal editor at ThinkHR, notes the more of an active ingredient that a repellent contains, the longer it will protect against mosquito bites. For example, DEET products vary in protection times based upon concentration percentage, from 1 hour (4.75 percent DEET) to 5 hours (23.8 percent DEET). Yurman said that outdoor workers, who should already be wearing sunblock, should nonetheless avoid a sunblock-insect repellent combination and instead use two separate products to get the maximum protection from both.

"Employers should conduct a cost-benefit analysis when determining whether to provide employees with repellent or repellent-treated clothing," said Yurman. "For instance, repellent-treated clothing may reduce the chance of exposure to ticks, mosquitoes, spiders, bees, mites, centipedes and other biting threats, thereby protecting not only the employees' health but the employer's investment in the worker."

Another important message from the guidance is to remove sources of standing water such as tires, buckets, cans, bottles, barrels, whenever possible to reduce or eliminate mosquito breeding areas and to make employees aware of mosquito breeding areas,such as ponds and bird baths.

Additional articles on summer WC threats

Why workers' comp claims spike in the summer months

Heat stress: preventable, but common and costly

Taking the stress out of heat