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April 02, 2019
Cal/OSHA cites employer for Valley Fever infections

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) cited Underground Construction Co., Inc., for serious health and safety violations after two of its employees contracted valley fever.

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Valley fever—coccidioidomycosis—is a fungal infection endemic to parts of the southwestern United States, including parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. Valley fever is most often contracted by inhalation of Coccidioides fungal spores, although skin infections have occurred. The fungus can be present in soil 2 to 12 inches below the surface, usually in hot desert areas.

Workers exposed during digging

Underground Construction’s workers were exposed to fungal spores while using hand tools to dig trenches in Fresno, Kings, and Merced Counties. Valley Fever is highly endemic in Fresno, Kings, and Merced counties, as well as in Kern, Madera, San Luis Obispo, and Tulare Counties.

Cal/OSHA was notified in September 2018 that the workers had been hospitalized with cases of valley fever. The workers had been assigned to dig trenches up to 5½ feet deep to gain access to gas pipelines for maintenance. Dust was not controlled, and the workers did not wear any respiratory protection.

Cal/OSHA recommends that employers determine whether worksites are in areas where valley fever is endemic. If so, the agency recommends that employers take steps to control dust exposure, including:

  • Minimize the area of soil disturbed;
  • Use water or appropriate soil stabilizers to reduce airborne dust;
  • Stabilize piles of soil by tarping or other methods;
  • Provide air-conditioned cabs for vehicles that generate heavy dust, and make sure workers keep windows and vents closed;
  • Suspend work during heavy winds; and
  • Place any on-site sleeping quarters, if provided, away from dust sources.

If dust cannot be controlled, employers should provide NIOSH-approved N95, N99, N100, P100, or HEPA-rated respiratory protection. Employers would then have to provide respirator fit testing and training under the requirements of California’s respiratory protection program standard.

Expanding valley fever range

While a high concentration of valley fever infections has been reported in California’s Central Valley, the fungus may be present in soil in other parts of the state. The range of endemic areas also has spread within the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported an increase in cases in south central Washington State since 2013.

The fungal spores are microscopic; and there are no commercially available soil-testing methods. The CDC has maps of areas considered endemic for Coccidioides. However, the CDC’s maps are based on skin testing performed in the 1940s and 1950s.

Warming ocean waters have led to an increase in dust storm activity and valley fever infections, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research. Valley fever infections increased more than 800 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to NOAA.

Uptick in Cal/OSHA citations

Cal/OSHA is seeking $27,000 in proposed penalties, alleging that Underground Construction failed to:

  • Evaluate the hazard of performing digging work in areas known to contain coccidioides fungal spores;
  • Suppress or control harmful dusts; and
  • Provide employees with respiratory protection.

Cal/OSHA has cited 12 businesses for work-related valley fever since 2017. In 2017, Cal/OSHA cited six employers with over $240,000 in penalties for exposing workers to valley fever infection at a solar project construction site in Cholame Hills, California. One of the employers was cited in 2013 for the same violation.

Cal/OSHA 2019

To learn more about Cal/OSHA enforcement trends and strategies to stay in compliance, attend BLR’s upcoming Cal/OSHA Summit 2019.

The Cal/OSHA Summit, which will be held from October 7–9 in Los Angeles, is a leading state-specific event for California employers and safety professionals to get cutting-edge developments on new safety regulations, compliance strategies, and management tactics. Register now.

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