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By Sam Pearson
Sept. 8 — OSHA stands ready to help employers and federal agencies in Zika-affected areas take appropriate action to protect workers from the mosquito-borne virus, an agency official said Sept. 8.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is developing guidance expected to be released this month in conjunction with the Department of Labor, the Office of Personnel Management and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, laying out specific steps employers can take to provide better protection for their workers, agency officials said at a federal advisory committee meeting.
“A number of our staff people have been deeply involved in these interagency discussions,” OSHA Director David Michaels said at the Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health, including by preparing a job hazard analysis template for federal agencies.
Michaels, overseeing his last committee meeting as OSHA director, added he expects the agency will need to “work on the issue for quite some time.”
While occupational cases of Zika virus have been few so far, Chris Brown, a senior health scientist at OSHA’s Office of Emergency Management and Preparedness, told the panel that could change.
In the U.S., one volunteer was infected at the University of Pittsburgh, but OSHA determined it lacked jurisdiction, Brown said. Other reporting of occupational exposures, especially internationally, may be inconsistent, Brown said.
Brown told the committee the range of the two mosquitoes capable of carrying the Zika virus—the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes—extends to all OSHA regions except for Region 10. However, he noted the virus is for now present only in two Florida neighborhoods and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.
Because the Zika virus poses the largest threat to pregnant women, those who may become pregnant and their sexual partners, these groups should be reassigned from outdoor work, Brown said.
When that isn't possible, employers may consider rotating workers between outdoor job duties. That limits the amount of time each worker spends outside, reducing their chance of contracting the virus, Brown said.
In workplaces like construction sites, public works and services, public safety, oil and gas extraction, amusement parks and others where it's usually not possible to move workers inside, employers can fight mosquitoes by removing standing water and providing insect repellent to workers, Brown said. Another option is to add engineering controls like screened booths and other enclosures or use personal protective equipment.
“When workers know that their employers are doing things to protect them, they’re more likely to show up and keep doing their jobs,” Brown said.
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