Health threats like Ebola, swine flu (H1N1), SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and bird flu have all taken a turn at terrifying the world's population, each pushing those likely to be exposed to establish unique safety measures. Now, the newest health scare has emerged in the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
The spread of Zika in South and Central America collided with the summer media blitz for the recent Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, turning an outbreak into a full-fledged panic. Once medical workers began to suspect a connection between the virus and babies born with microcephaly, a neurological disorder, women were cautioned about traveling to Brazil, and a group of 150 health professionals even called for the Olympics to be postponed. Additionally, outdoor workers were determined to be exceptionally vulnerable to mosquitos carrying the disease and were also encouraged to take preventative measures.
Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have outlined procedures to protect construction workers from Zika exposure while on the job, as well as to clear up misconceptions about the virus. Construction firms in Zika-prone areas are taking those steps and additional precautions to ensure their workers are educated about the virus and protected from contracting it.
The facts of the Zika virus and steps to protect employees
Zika, which is carried by the Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus mosquito, is neither a worldwide threat nor is it something with which most Americans need to concern themselves. So far, the virus has only been detected in South and Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, some Pacific islands and two areas in South Florida. Just this week, authorities downgraded the Zika threat for one of those locations in Florida when no new cases were reported after three mosquito incubation cycles.
However, Miami-based construction company IBT Group is keeping its guard up regarding the virus threat. "Mosquitoes don't carry a passport," said Daniel Toledano, IBT managing director. He said the company makes sure that workers in any area with a risk of exposure are taking the proper measures as recommended by the CDC and OSHA. Those recommendations include:
- Eliminating any sources of standing water on the site, as this is where mosquitoes breed
- Implementing a weekly cleaning of anything that holds water
- Wearing long pants, long-sleeved shirts and socks in an effort to minimize exposed skin
- Applying an EPA-registered insect repellent daily
- Spraying outdoor areas with insect spray
- Treating clothing with permethrin or buying pre-treated clothing
When employees suspect they have contracted Zika, the CDC recommends they take a blood or urine test. The virus often presents itself with mild symptoms of fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, conjunctivitis (pink eye) and headache. No vaccine for the virus has been released yet.
A familiar threat for workers in the field
The CDC recommendations are common-sense measures, according to Toledano, who also oversees large infrastructure projects in Central and South America, where the Zika threat can be so severe that the company takes the temperature of employees at certain job sites twice a day. However, he said, workers are no different whether they are in Brazil or in Florida in that they need to be reminded daily of required protection procedures.
In addition, Toledano said mosquitoes can also carry dengue and chikungunya, diseases that construction crews in Latin America have been fighting for decades. "They understand the risk associated with it because they have been exposed to mosquito bites their whole lives," he said. "That's why we have strong security officers to make sure recommendations are enforced." Safety procedures are particularly important, he said, on remote construction sites where workers share sharing sleeping quarters.
How to educate employees about potential risks
Eddie Martinez, director of safety for Munilla Construction Management in Miami, said the company employs 300 workers in the South Florida region, so preventing Zika exposure is a full-time task. Although the company is not currently working in any locations that have been identified by the CDC as a Zika risk, Martinez said the firm has ongoing work in the Everglades and other mosquito-prone areas.
As a result, the company has initiated a proactive Zika prevention program. The company holds morning safety "toolbox talks" once a week to update and educate employees on the virus, which Martinez calls a "Zika recap." MCM also issues mosquito repellent to all employees and requires them to use it.
Martinez said that if an MCM employee suspects he or she has been infected with Zika, the company would simply follow OSHA and CDC guidelines, just as it would for any other safety or health issue. Similar to IBT, Martinez said MCM has a strict safety policy, and all employees must comply. "We're taking precautions because we can't just wait for an outbreak," he said.
It's critical that the Zika information pipeline is dependable. "Most of the people get their information from social media," Martinez said. "Those people are not experts. We go directly to the CDC to educate our employees."
There's also another motive for IBT to keep its employees Zika-free: the goal of creating a safe workplace. "For us, security in construction is security for our workers. If workers feel protected, then we attract the best employees," Martinez said.