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Valley Fever: the silent epidemic threatening California workers

| Jan 20, 2021 | Workplace Illness |

California workers in the agriculture and construction industries risk exposure to Valley Fever. It is an illness caused by the inhalation of dust spores of a fungus called Coccidioides. The term “silent epidemic” refers to the fact that the spores are invisible, and the symptoms of the illness are often confused with other conditions with similar symptoms.

Any activities that disturb soil set the Valley Fever fungus spores free to be carried in the wind. Examples include digging, plowing, trench work, heavy moving equipment and road works. Once set free, the wind carries the dangerous spores over hundreds of miles. Workers are typically not even aware that they inhaled the fungus.

Employers must ensure workers are aware of potential safety hazards and precautions to mitigate risks, including Valley Fever. It could cause pneumonia, which could result in permanent lung damage. The disease can also spread to other organs, especially if the diagnosis is delayed.

Precautions to limit Valley Fever hazards

  • Limit dust by using soil stabilizers, water and ventilation.
  • Revegetate work areas to limit dust from becoming airborne.
  • Provide workers with respiratory protection approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
  • Monitor workers and enforce the use of respirators.
  • Avoid disturbing excessive areas of soil.
  • Limit the number of workers in areas where the soil is disturbed, including dust. generators like heavy equipment and large vehicles.
  • Ensure that vehicles, equipment and tools are clean before taking them off the site.
  • Encourage workers to bring clean clothes to change into before going home to prevent exposing families to the fungus.
  • Operators of earthmoving equipment must work in enclosed cabs, fitted with efficient air filtration devices.
  • These operators must do frequent inspections of window and door seals and also the filter seals.

Exposure and risks

The highest risk occurs at the beginning of the soil work because the hazardous fungus spores are in the soil’s top layers, up to about 12 inches deep. Safety authorities urge employers and employees to assume the presence of the spores and to take the necessary precautions. Any California workers who start showing flu-like symptoms should see a physician as soon as possible. Informing the doctor of dust exposure might lead to a more accurate diagnosis.

Workers who wait to see if it is flu might be waiting until it’s too late. Unlike flu, Valley Fever could cause work absence for weeks or even months. That is another reason for seeking medical treatment promptly and reporting the illness to your employer as soon as possible. This is when your workers’ compensation claim can be filed. The employer will be responsible for paying your medical expenses, and the California workers’ compensation system will include a percentage of lost wages in your benefits.

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