The Lyme Time Bomb
File this one under, “As if I didn’t have enough to worry about already”, but if you are an employer with occupations that require outdoor activity/work in areas where Lyme disease is endemic, your life is going to be getting a bit harder. Because your employees are at an increased risk of exposure to infected ticks, they are also at an increased risk of occupationally acquired Lyme disease. According to the CDC, although only 30,000 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. As a result, the effect of the epidemic on employers is somewhat hard to quantify. What is clear though is that as the volume of Lyme disease diagnoses continues to rise and more and more health insurers refuse to pay for extended Lyme disease treatments, employers are soon sure to feel the bite.
Exposure: (According to the CDC)
- 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.
How Lyme Affects Employers:
Reduced Productivity -
In early, or “Stage One” Lyme disease, infected individuals suffer flu-like symptoms lasting anywhere from several days to a month or so. During this stage, it is very common for employees to either report for work feeling ill or call in sick frequently. In stages two and three which begin months to years after being infected, the symptoms of Lyme become much more severe and employees with CLD may only be able to return to work on a limited basis or may not return to work at all.
Increased Health Insurance Costs -
Research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that a prolonged illness associated with the disease costs the U.S. health care system between $712 million and $1.3 billion a year — or nearly $3,000 per patient on average. A 2012 study by Dr. Zhang for the CDC, the total cost of illness associated with Lyme disease goes up greatly to almost $20,000 in the later stages.
Workers’ Compensation Claims -
In most jurisdictions, Lyme disease has long been recognized as a compensable occupational disease as long as the claimant was able to prove that the tick bite causing the Lyme disease occurred at work. While this standard remains, the jury is still literally out on occupationally acquired chronic Lyme disease and workers’ compensation benefits.
Prevention (According to OSHA)
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 when nymphal ticks feed;
- 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. Their application may be controversial or considered inappropriate in some communities. Some concerns regarding widespread use, including long-term effects on water supply and wildlife, have been raised. Investigation into various environmental aspects of these measures continues.
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.)
written by: Rob Holt C/L's Account Executive