Lyme Disease and Employee Exposure

By Rob Holt

File this one under, “As if I didn’t have enough to worry about already”, but if you are an employer or head of a nonprofit with positions that require outdoor activity/work, your life may be getting a bit harder again this summer.  New England already has one of the highest incidence rates of Lyme disease in the country, and with the recent snowy winter, experts expect this tick season could be another tough one. As a result, your employees/volunteers working outdoors are going to be at increased risk of exposure to infected ticks and occupationally acquired Lyme disease.

According to the CDC, although only about 35,000 cases of Lyme are reported to the agency each year, the actual number of people infected annually is likely closer to 300,000, or approximately 1% of the U.S. population!  The exact number of those who were infected at work, however, is unknown because even though the CDC actively tracks the spread of the disease, little research has been done as to the true incidence of occupationally acquired Lyme. The effect of the epidemic on employers then is somewhat hard to quantify.  What is clear though is that as the volume of Lyme disease diagnoses continues to rise, employers and non-profits are sure to feel the bite.

 Exposure: (According to the CDC) 

  • S. workers in the northeastern and north-central states including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Minnesota, Maryland, Virginia, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Maine are at highest risk of exposure.
  • Occupations that may be associated with an increased risk include construction, landscaping, forestry, brush clearing, land surveying, farming, railroad work, oil field work, utility line work, and park/wildlife management.
  • Other occupations that carry a potentially higher risk can include summer/day camp and campground employees, day care workers, teachers, golf course staff, ski area employees, and any other occupation that puts workers in the woods, bushes, high grass, or leaf litter areas.

The good news is that when diagnosed early, roughly sixty percent of patients with early Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics and will suffer no lingering health issues.  Unfortunately though, because the symptoms of Lyme resemble that of so many other diseases, a firm diagnosis is frequently delayed; often for years.  By then, many people will have already gone on to develop chronic Lyme disease, or “CLD” – a disabling disease characterized by chronic inflammatory arthritis, chronic muscle pain, heart disease, and/or neurological (brain and peripheral nerves) disorders.

It is critical then that employers and non-profits not only be aware of the risks ticks pose to their staffs, but to take preventive measures to help reduce those risks.  The best place to start is with education.

Prevention (According to OSHA)

Contact Avoidance

Avoiding tick bites is of utmost importance in the prevention of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. The CDC discusses several strategies to prevent tick-human contact:

  • Avoiding brushy, overgrown grassy, and wooded habitats, particularly in spring and early summer;
  • Removing leaves, tall grass, and brush from areas surrounding work areas or residential areas, thereby reducing tick, deer, and rodent habitat;
  • Applying tick-toxic chemicals (e.g., Damminix, Dursban, Sevin, etc.) to surrounding work or residential areas has resulted in suppression of the tick population. Pesticides should be used only in accordance with federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and applicable state and local regulations.

Although tick habitat should be avoided or cleared where possible, there are some job duties where this is not possible. The probability of tick bites can be decreased by using personal protection. Several measures have been recommended for personal protection, and have been used, including:

  • Wearing light-colored clothing so that ticks can be more easily seen and removed before attachment occurs;
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and tucking pant legs into socks or boots to prevent ticks from reaching the skin;
  • Wearing high boots or closed shoes that cover the entire foot;
  • Wearing a hat;
  • Spraying insect repellents (containing n,n-diethylm-toluamide [DEET]) on exposed skin, excluding the face, in accordance with EPA guidelines. Using permethrin on clothes to kill ticks on contact;
  • Showering, and washing and drying clothes at a high temperature, after outdoor exposure;
  • Checking the body carefully for ticks; once found, promptly removing them with tweezers. (Grasp the tick firmly and as close to the skin as possible. With a steady motion, pull the tick’s body away from the skin. Cleanse the area with an antiseptic. DO NOT use petroleum jelly, a hot match, nail polish, or other products to remove the tick.).

Finally; more and more cases of occupationally acquired Lyme disease are being upheld as commensurable under Workers’ Compensation coverage, so if you think someone on your staff may have been exposed to Lyme disease, it is critical that they get checked by a physician immediately.  Not only will this help protect their health, but to protect you as the employer as well as.

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