Hidden within the soil in some prime agricultural areas of California is a fungus that can pose a serious health risk when soil is disturbed. Digging, trenching, equipment movement, and other similar activities can cause this fungus, Coccidioides Immitis, to go airborne.
When people breathe in the fungus, they are at risk of contracting Valley Fever—a disease whose symptoms mimic other common ailments.
Depending on the severity, those who contract Valley Fever will experience flu-like symptoms and will usually recover from it on their own. Unlike the flu, however, recovery can take weeks or months to complete, which could result in significant missed work time.
In more severe cases, pneumonia may develop, patients may suffer lung damage, or the disease can advance into disseminated Valley Fever where it spreads beyond the lungs to other organs.
What your employees need to know
Avoid dust. Agriculture and construction workers are at significant risk for developing Valley Fever, because they are likely to face the greatest rate of dust exposure compared to other occupations. Your Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) should include control measures to reduce dust exposure.
The risk of exposure is greatest when digging begins. It doesn’t take long for Coccidiodes immitis to become airborne. The fungus lives in the top two-to-12 inches of the soil so it’s likely to be released into the air when digging begins. And, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) says there is no reliable way to test for it.
Get treated right away. Because symptoms are similar to other common illnesses, treatment is often delayed because the disease is not diagnosed right away. CDPH encourages anyone working in Valley Fever exposure areas to report any potential symptoms to a supervisor, and seek treatment right away.
What your employees need to do
While on the job, here’s what to do to prevent exposure:
- Use approved respiratory protection with particulate filters rated N95, N99, N100, P100, or HEPA. (These must be approved by NIOSH – the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health – and are provided by the employer).
- Use water, appropriate soil stabilizers, and/or revegetation to cut down on how much dust becomes airborne.
- Minimize the area of soil to be disturbed.
- Take precautions to isolate workers on the ground from heavy equipment and other dust generating processes.
- Clean tools, equipment, and vehicles before transporting them off the worksite.
- Bring a change of clothes to the jobsite and change into them after the workday ends. (Employers are encouraged to provide change rooms and showers whenever possible).
- Controlling exposures through common dust control methods of enclosure, wet methods, and ventilation.
- Ensuring that earth moving equipment operators are in enclosed cabs with proper air filtration.
At your safety meeting
Discuss the symptoms of Valley Fever and remind workers that these symptoms are similar to other common illnesses. What may seem like the common cold could actually be something much worse.
Other items to discuss and demonstrate include:
- Respirators – how to use them, how they work, how to put them on, and when it is safe to take them off.
- The proper procedure for cleaning tools, equipment, and vehicles before leaving the job site.
- How to use water and other dust control measures to cut down on the amount of soil that becomes airborne.
Exposure to airborne dust particles is unavoidable for agriculture workers. But, by knowing what could be living within the soil and how serious the risk is if your workers breathe in those dust particles, you also know what actions to take to help provide a safe and effective workplace for your employees.