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November 05, 2013
Cal/OSHA cites employers for valley fever exposure; Tips for prevention

In September, Cal/OSHA cited six employers at two solar energy construction sites for failing to protect their workers from exposure to valley fever, a fungal disease prevalent in the southwestern United States. In the wake of those cases, the agency issued a press release reminding employers of the hazards of valley fever and directing them to resources to help protect employees.

Valley fever, also known as Coccidioidomycosis, typically exists in areas with dry, desert-like weather conditions. Most people (approximately 60 percent) who become infected do not develop symptoms, but the disease can cause a flu-like illness with symptoms lasting up to a month that include fever, fatigue, muscle or joint aches, headaches, rash, cough, chest pain, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss.

While most people recover, some cases lead to pneumonia or other complications. In about 5 percent of cases, the disease spreads outside the lungs to affect other body parts, including the joints, bones, brain, skin, or other organs. This form of the disease is called disseminated valley fever and can be very serious, even fatal.

How are workers exposed?

The fungus that causes Valley Fever lives in the top 2 to 12 inches of soil. When digging, vehicles, wind, or other forces disturb soil that contains the fungus, the fungal spores become airborne. Workers who inhale these fungal spores may contract valley fever. Occupations at particularly high risk of developing valley fever include construction, mining, oil and gas extraction, archaeological work, and wildland firefighting.

Are your employees at risk?

In California, 75 percent of the state’s valley fever cases occur in the state’s Central Valley, including Fresno, Kern, Kings, Tulare, San Luis Obispo, Madera, and Merced counties. According to the California Department of Public Health, the number of new valley cases in California has increased dramatically in the last few years.

However, California employers aren’t the only ones who need to be aware of the hazards: The disease-causing fungus is also found in other southwestern states, including Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 70 percent of valley fever cases occur in Arizona; 25 percent occur in California.

Employers’ responsibilities

In the recent California enforcement cases, Cal/OSHA cited employers under its rules for injury and illness prevention programs (IIPPs), control of harmful exposure, respiratory protection, and recording and reporting of occupational injuries and illnesses.

Although there is no regulation that specifically targets infectious diseases, California’s IIPP rule requires that employers develop a program that identifies the hazards workers face and specifies ways to reduce exposure to these hazards. According to Cal/OSHA, the employers in the recent enforcement case should have recognized that their employees were at risk of contracting valley fever and taken steps to prevent worker exposure through engineering and administrative controls, effective use of respiratory protection, and other methods.

The IIPP rule has no federal OSHA counterpart, although OSHA does encourage employers to develop IIPPs as an effective method of ensuring workplace safety. However, under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, an employer can be cited for failing to protect employees from any recognized serious hazard. In areas where valley fever is common, if workers are engaged in activities that put them at risk, it is possible for OSHA to issue a general duty clause citation if appropriate protective measures are not used.

Protecting workers

The California Department of Public Health recommends the following steps to protect workers from exposure to valley fever and prevent spread of the fungal spores:

  • In areas where valley fever is common, limit workers’ exposure to outdoor dust.
  • If soil will be disturbed by heavy equipment or vehicles, wet the soil before and during work to keep dust levels down.
  • During soil-disturbing tasks, position workers upwind if possible.
  • Provide heavy equipment, trucks, and other vehicles equipped with enclosed, air-conditioned cabs and make sure employees keep the windows closed.
  • If dust exposure is unavoidable, provide NIOSH-approved respirators with particulate filters rated as N95, N99, N100, P100, or HEPA.
  • Clean tools, equipment, and vehicles with water before transporting to ensure that fungal spores do not spread from one location to another.
  • Make sure workers keep street clothes and work clothes separate.
  • Encourage workers to shower at the workplace following potential exposure to valley fever.
  • Encourage workers who may be exposed to valley fever to report respiratory symptoms lasting longer than a week to a supervisor.
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