U.S. companies should consider reassigning pregnant women, women who plan to conceive, or men whose wives or partners are contemplating pregnancy to indoor tasks to reduce their mosquito bite risks and exposure to Zika-infested areas, according to federal health authorities.
This is only one of the general guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on April 22 to shield workers from occupational exposure to the Zika virus.
While the main transmission route of the virus is through mosquito bites, the guidance also recognized that Zika can be sexually transmitted.
Outdoor workers are considered most at risk for Zika infection.
"Some workers, including those working with insecticides in areas of active Zika transmission to control mosquitoes and healthcare workers who may be exposed to contaminated blood or other potentially infectious materials from people infected with Zika virus, may require additional protection," noted the federal health and safety agencies in a statement.
As interim guidelines, however, the newly released guidance is not legally enforceable, clarified OSHA deputy assistant secretary Jordan Barab, who added that advisory guidelines such as this one are typically provided during epidemics and emergency situations.
Based on earlier recommended guidelines for protection against the West Nile virus, health officials urged companies to provide outdoor workers with insect repellants containing EPA-approved active ingredients; protective clothing for the arms, legs, and other exposed parts of the skin; and hats with mosquito netting for the face and neck.
Employers are also urged to allow workers to wear lightweight and loose-fitting clothes, both to protect against harmful UV rays from the sun and act as a mosquito barrier.
It is deemed important, too, to remove sources of standing water to minimize or eliminate areas for mosquitoes’ egg-laying, and to educate workers about doing this at their workplace.
Following its earlier travel guidance, the CDC also encouraged employers to promote flexibility in required travel, particularly to places with active Zika transmission. Pregnant women are still advised to delay travel to those countries and regions.
According to Jill M. Shugart of CDC, the occupational guidelines were primarily discussed with the airline and cruise ship sector, which expressed initial concerns with the agency’s January travel guidelines for pregnant women. She added, though, that they usually consulted with trade groups and unions regarding the matter.
The CDC recommended pregnant women to avoid entire Zika-ridden countries, but afterwards amended that to cover only areas below 6,500 feet in elevation due to the inability of Zika-carrying mosquitoes to survive at high altitudes.
The new guidance is also imbued with careful phrasing, such as employers asked to “consider reassigning” to indoor areas “if requested by a worker.”
Read the full interim guidance here [PDF].