OHS Canada Magazine

Here Comes the Sun (August 15, 2010)

August 15, 2010

Health & Safety Injury, Illness Prevention

ENVIABLE POSITION: Working outside, basking in the warmth of the sun’s rays — sounds pretty good, ...

ENVIABLE POSITION: Working outside, basking in the warmth of the sun’s rays — sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Those stuck labouring inside may look on with envy, but the great outdoors is hardly an oasis. A variety of hazards lurk, from insects to ultraviolet radiation to heat stress. “Outdoor workers are exposed to many types of hazards that depend on their type of work, geographic region, season and duration of time they are outside,” notes information from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the United States. Among the many people who earn their livings outdoors are farmers, foresters, landscapers, roofers, road pavers and construction workers, the institute reports. “Employers should train outdoor workers about their workplace hazards, including hazard identification and recommendations for preventing and controlling their exposures,” NIOSH advises.



BUZZ OFF: There is no shortage of bugs to drive an outdoor worker up the wall. In Canada, a short list of big pests that come in tiny packages includes mosquitoes, bees, wasps, hornets and ticks. Their bites carry outcomes as varied as West Nile virus, anaphylactic shock and Lyme disease. Some uncertainty, it seems, is to be expected. As Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care in Toronto notes, “There is no way to predict how serious West Nile virus will be in any given year.”




GOING VIRAL: West Nile virus, which can cause fever, headache and fatigue, is transmitted to humans via mosquito bites, notes information from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. These symptoms generally last about one week. Approximately 80 per cent of people infected will not get sick, the centre reports, with the remainder having “mild to moderate illness that starts three to 14 days after being infected.” In less than one per cent of cases the impact of the virus can be more serious, causing meningitis, encephalitis or polio-like paralysis. If a person develops severe headaches or neck stiffness with no apparent causes, or if other West Nile symptoms surface, it is advisable to contact a doctor.



TAKE COVER: Ontario’s health ministry offers the following tips to prevent mosquito bites:

Spray down — Consider applying DEET-based repellents to exposed skin, although the concentration should not exceed 30 per cent for adults.

Cover up — Keep exposed skin to a minimum by wearing long-sleeved shirts or jackets and pants. Bug-protective gear may be in order for workers who spend long periods outside.

Clean house — “The best way to keep mosquitoes away,” the ministry notes, “is to clean up areas where they like to breed.” Get rid of standing water at least once a week. Some popular mosquito hangouts include bird baths, old tires, empty containers and clogged ditches.



INVOLUNTARY HOST: Mosquitoes aren’t alone in their ability to transmit disease. Ticks, which make their homes primarily in woods and tall grasslands, can also spread disease, reports the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton, Ontario. A tick infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterium, can spread Lyme disease when it feeds on its host’s blood. Possible effects include “rashes and flu-like symptoms to more serious symptoms, including arthritic, cardiac and neurological effects,” the CCOHS notes.

The disease is usually treated effectively with antibiotics, especially when caught early on. Borrelia burgdorferi-bearing ticks have known populations in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia, the Public Health Agency of Canada reports, though there is a “low risk of Lyme disease being contracted almost anywhere in Canada.”



KEEP IT CLEAN: Anaphylactic shock, the body’s severe allergic reaction to an insect sting or bite, is often top of mind when bee, wasp or hornet stings occur. Immediate emergency care is required in such a scenario, NIOSH advises. “Thousands of people are stung by insects each year, and as many as 90 to 100 people in the United States die as a result of allergic reactions.” Of course, most people will survive a sting just fine. The Canada Safety Council in Ottawa suggests taking the following measures post-sting: remove the stinger using a firm object, such as a credit card, sweeping it across the site and pulling out the stinger (don’t use tweezers or squeeze the skin); use soap and water to clean the site; and apply ice for a few minutes and a hydrocortisone cream afterwards.



TIME LAPSE: Though not as readily apparent as a bee sting, the effects of ultraviolet radiation (UV) can take their toll over time. It’s well-known that UV can lead to skin cancer and, as the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) in Ottawa notes, outdoor workers are at higher risk because they are exposed to the sun for long periods of time. Adding to that danger is the fact that the workers are in the sun when ultraviolet radiation “is at its strongest, between 12 noon and 2 pm,” the association reports.



KNOW YOUR ABCs: UV radiation, the CCOHS notes, is divided into three wavelength categories: UV-C, UV-B and UV-A. While some UV exposure is healthy (it stimulates vitamin D production), excessive exposure “can damage the skin and the eyes. The severity of the effect depends on the wavelength, intensity and duration of exposure,” the centre points out.

The CDA offers the following prevention advice:

Limit outdoor work under the sun between 11 am and 4 pm;

Seek shade as much as possible, especially during breaks;

Wear sun-blocking clothing, such as hats, pants and long-sleeved shirts; and,

Apply an SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum sunscreen to all exposed skin.



STRESSFUL SITUATION: Too much of anything can be a bad thing, and body heat is no exception. As information from Work Safe Alberta in Edmonton notes, the body “works best” when its internal temperature is 37 degrees Celsius. This is “necessary for your vital organs to function normally. During a regular day, your body temperature may vary by about 1 C depending on the time of day, your level of physical activity and how you are feeling.”

Excessive heat can lead to the following conditions:

Heat edema — swelling of body parts, particularly the ankles;

Heat rashes — small red spots on the skin caused by inflammation from plugged sweat glands;

Heat cramps — sharp muscle pains prompted by internal salt deficiencies;

Heat exhaustion — weakness, dizziness, nausea and muscle cramps related to water and salt loss;

Heat syncope — giddiness and fainting because of insufficient flow of blood to the brain while standing; ultimately caused by body fluid loss and lowered blood pressure; and,

Heat stroke — partial or complete loss of consciousness, often when body temperature surpasses 41 C.



COOL DOWN: Ontario’s Ministry of Labour in Toronto cites various ways to control heat stress. Some steps include the following: acclimatize staff by gradually increasing the amount of time they spend in hot conditions; reduce physical demands with mechanical aids; provide cool, shaded work areas; increase break frequency and length; offer cool drinking water; and train employees on the symptoms of heat stress.


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