Summer, Mosquitoes—and the Zika Virus

The CDC urges employers to protect outdoor workers

By Dana Wilkie Apr 27, 2016
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As summer approaches, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising employers to redouble their efforts to protect workers—especially those whose jobs are outdoors—from the Zika virus.

The spread of the Zika virus, the mosquito-borne disease possibly linked to birth defects, led the CDC earlier this year to warn pregnant women, women planning to get pregnant, and men with partners who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant against travel to about two dozen countries with active Zika virus transmission.

Now the CDC is urging all organizations that employ 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.

Those who often perform a significant part of their job outside include workers in agriculture, recreation, logging and construction; those who are employed by utility, pest control, landscape and trash-collection companies; and those who work on piers and docks, at swimming pools, along highways and railroads, and in oil fields.

Educate All to Avoid Discrimination

Companies cannot forbid pregnant employees, employees of childbearing age or their partners from traveling to countries where the virus is a concern, said Samantha Yurman, legal editor at ThinkHR, which offers advice and resources for HR professionals.

“The issue is pregnancy discrimination and whether an employer could either prohibit travel or take adverse actions against pregnant employees in an effort to protect them,” Yurman said, noting that federal law and the U.S. Supreme Court “prohibit employers from taking adverse action against women to protect against reproductive health risks. An employer’s concern about risks to the employee or her fetus will rarely, if ever, justify sex-specific job restrictions for a woman with childbearing capacity.”

The Supreme Court, she said, has also noted that decisions about the welfare of future children must be left to the parents who conceive, bear, support and raise them—rather than to the employers who hire those prospective parents.

Patrick J. Miller, a partner with Sherman & Howard in Denver, noted that because an employer can’t know about every employee who may be at risk from the Zika virus, it’s best to educate all employees about the risks—not just women or women of childbearing age. 

“There may be those in the workforce who are affected unbeknownst to the employer, and if they aren’t offered [reassignment], that could be a problem,” he said. “It’s better to simply provide all employees with information and let them come to you for accommodation, if necessary. Well-intentioned employers can get themselves in trouble if they are not careful.” 

Michael Eckard, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Atlanta, said it’s acceptable to tell all employees that they can seek accommodations if they’re worried about the virus.

“I think it is perfectly appropriate for the employer to suggest that, if an employee is concerned about performing certain job functions, the employee should consult with his or her doctor to determine what is best. Rather than suggesting that an employee take a voluntary reassignment, I would instead inform employees that they may request reassignments and indicate that there would be no negative employment consequences should an employee choose to do so.” 

In guidance issued this month—Interim Guidance for Protecting Workers from Occupational Exposure to Zika Virus—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.”  

“Note that … this contemplates a voluntarily reassignment that is requested by an employee,” Eckard said.

Prevention

The guidance suggests using an insect repellant “containing an EPA-registered active ingredient,” and it states that research suggests DEET or picaridin “typically provide longer-lasting protection than the other products.”

“The CDC also stated that oil of lemon eucalyptus provides longer-lasting protection than other plant-based repellents,” Yurman said. “Permethrin is another long-lasting repellent that is intended for application to clothing and gear, but not directly to skin.”

Generally, she said, 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).

The guidance also recommends that employers “[p]rovide workers with, and encourage them to wear, clothing that covers their hands, arms, legs and other exposed skin” and to “[c]onsider providing workers with hats with mosquito netting to protect the face and neck.” 

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.”

Finally, the CDC guidance recommends that employers remove “sources of standing water (e.g., tires, buckets, cans, bottles, barrels) whenever possible to reduce or eliminate mosquito breeding areas” and to “[t]rain workers about the importance of eliminating areas where mosquitos can breed at the worksite.”

“Many manufacturing environments often have standing water as part of their manufacturing processes,” Eckard said. “Many corporate campuses have ponds or other water features as part of the landscaping. And many jobsites have other features that tend to collect standing water.” 

Other examples of places where standing water may collect outside include bird baths, garbage can lids and paint cans.

Scott Lockman is director of commercial insurance for Clements Worldwide, which provides insurance to expatriates and international organizations. He noted that humanitarian aid and NGO workers are often outside interacting with the community “so there is certainly huge risk for them.”

“Really, any expat working in affected countries will go outside at some point so while there risk will be lower there is still risk,” Lockman said. “In humanitarian aid work you will often see standing pools of water for cleaning, or sadly for drinking.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager at SHRM.

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