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Protect Yourself (and Your Employees) From the Zika Virus

In 2015, for the first time, cases of Zika virus infection emerged in the Americas and the Caribbean. In the past, Zika virus historically had been found in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. The virus, named for its discovery in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947, poses an ongoing risk to employers and employees alike. While the Zika epidemic seems to be mostly confined to Latin America and the Caribbean at this time, it's best to be prepared and stay protected. 

What is Zika Virus?
The outbreak of the mosquito-borne
Zika virus has recently been classified as a global public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although the symptoms of the virus are generally mild, the virus may cause serious congenital disorders. Thankfully, there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your family:

  • Women who are pregnant or who are trying to become pregnant should postpone traveling to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.
  • Individuals traveling to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing should take steps to prevent mosquito bites, such as using insect repellents and wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts.
  • Consult a health care professional if you experience any symptoms of the Zika virus, such as a rash, fever, joint pain or conjunctivitis.

Experts have theorized that the Zika virus can be passed from a pregnant woman to her child, and it can cause the development of microcephaly. This serious abnormality frequently leads to a lower than average life expectancy and severely impaired intellectual development.

Workers involved in landscaping, agriculture or any other business that requires long periods of time outside could face an elevated risk of contracting Zika virus. Use these guidelines to educate yourself and your employees about Zika virus and how to reduce the chances of contracting it.

What Can Employers Do To Protect Employees?
Employers must comply with universal precautions for potential blood borne pathogen (BBP) exposures, as described in OSHA’s BBP standard (29 CFR 1910.1030), and any applicable requirements in OSHA’s personal protective equipment (PPE) standards (29 CFR 1910 Subpart I), among other OSHA requirements.

The CDC recommends the following employer actions:

  • Inform workers about their risk of exposure to Zika virus through mosquito bites and train them on how to protect themselves. Check the CDC’s Zika website to find Zika-affected areas.
  • Provide insect repellents and encourage their use according to the guidance below.
  • Provide workers with, and encourage them to wear, clothing that covers their hands, arms, legs and other exposed skin. Consider providing workers with hats with mosquito netting to protect the face and neck.
  • In warm weather, encourage workers to wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing. This type of clothing protects workers from the sun’s harmful rays and provides a barrier to mosquitoes. Always provide workers with adequate water, rest and shade, and monitor workers for signs and symptoms of heat illness.
  • Get rid of sources of standing water (e.g., tires, buckets, cans, bottles, barrels) whenever possible to reduce or eliminate mosquito breeding areas. Train workers about the importance of eliminating areas where mosquitoes can breed at the worksite.
  • If requested by a worker, 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.

Insect Repellents
Insect repellents can protect employees from mosquitoes and other insects, but both employers and employees should be careful when selecting and using an insect repellent. When using insect repellent, consider the following guidance:

  • Always follow label precautions when using insect repellent.
  • Use insect repellent containing an EPA-registered active ingredient. All of the EPA-registered active ingredients have demonstrated repellency, but some provide longer-lasting protection than others. Research suggests that repellents containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) or picaridin (KBR 3023) typically provide longer-lasting protection than the other products, and oil of lemon eucalyptus (p-Menthane-3,8-diol) provides longer-lasting protection than other plant-based repellents. Permethrin is another long-lasting repellent that is intended for application to clothing and gear, but not directly to skin.
  • Choose a repellent that provides protection for the amount of time that you will be outdoors. In general, the more active of an ingredient (higher concentration) a repellent contains, the longer it will protect against mosquito bites. For example, the more DEET a repellent contains, the longer the time it can protect you from mosquito bites, with protection times ranging from one hour (4.75 percent DEET) to five hours (23.8 percent DEET). Studies suggest that concentrations of DEET above approximately 50 percent do not offer a marked increase in protection time against mosquitoes; DEET efficacy tends to plateau at a concentration of approximately 50 percent.
  • To avoid reaction to DEET or other ingredients in insect repellents, read and follow the directions on all insect repellents before use. Also, remember the following when applying insect repellent:
    • Spray insect repellent (permethrin) on the outside of clothing, as it is possible for mosquitoes to bite through thin clothing.
    • Do NOT spray insect repellent on skin that is under clothing.
    • Do NOT apply insect repellent to skin that is already irritated, or to cuts/lacerations.
    • Do NOT spray aerosol or pump products in enclosed areas.
    • Do NOT spray a pump or aerosol product directly on the face. First spray it on hands and then carefully spread it on the face.
    • Do not allow insect repellent to come into contact with the eyes or mouth.
    • After returning indoors and before eating, use soap and water to wash skin that has been treated with insect repellent. Reapply repellent when returning outdoors or after eating.

Sunscreen and Insect Repellents
Outdoor workers may need to use sunscreen in conjunction with insect repellent. Repellents that are applied according to label instructions may be used with sunscreen with no reduction in repellent activity. However, limited data show a one-third decrease in the sun protection factor (SPF) of sunscreens when DEET-containing insect repellents are used after a sunscreen is applied.

Products that combine sunscreen and repellent are not recommended, because sunscreen may need to be reapplied more often and in larger amounts than needed for the repellent component to provide protection from biting insects. The best option is to use separate products, applying sunscreen first and then applying the repellent. But due to the decrease in SPF when using a DEET-containing insect repellent after applying sunscreen, users may need to reapply the sunscreen more frequently.

Stop using insect repellent and/or sunscreen if a rash or other adverse symptoms develop. Wash skin with soap and water. Consult a health care provider or poison control center for further guidance. Be sure to inform the health care provider or poison control center about the insect repellent used (e.g., type, when and where applied). Take other actions, as described in this guidance, to avoid mosquito bites if insect repellent cannot be used.

Traveling to Zika-affected Areas
Employers should consider allowing flexibility in required travel for workers who are concerned about Zika virus exposure. Flexible travel and leave policies may help control the spread of the virus, especially for workers who are concerned about the reproductive effects potentially associated with Zika virus infection.

Consider delaying travel to Zika-affected areas, especially for workers who are or may become pregnant or whose sexual partners may become pregnant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that pregnant women in any trimester not travel to an area with active Zika virus transmission. The CDC has published Zika Travel Information by region, which may assist workers and employers in making travel-related decisions or implementing precautions when traveling. Pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, and men with sexual partners who are or may become pregnant should consult with their health care providers about risks associated with Zika virus infection during pregnancy. More information can also be found on the CDC’s Zika and Pregnancy website.

Even if they do not feel sick, travelers returning to the United States from Zika-affected areas should take steps to prevent mosquito bites for three weeks so they do not pass Zika to mosquitoes that could spread the virus to other people. 

For more mosquito control tips and information, visit the Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) website.