Despite their small size, ticks present one of the biggest workplace safety hazards for field professionals and others who work outdoors.
Ticks are blood-sucking arachnids that get their nutrients from biting humans and other mammals, like dogs and deer. While ticks take on different physical characteristics during their lifecycles, they always have eight legs and range in color from brown, dark red, to black.
Ticks are a hazard because of their ability to transmit harmful diseases like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Ehrlichiosis, as well as cause allergic reactions. With over 30,000 cases reported to the CDC in 2016, Lyme disease—with symptoms like rash, headache, fever, and joint pain—is the most common tickborne illness in the United States. But like all tickborne illnesses, it is 100% preventable if you take the appropriate safety measures before, during, and after working outside.
This tick health and safety guide provides knowledge, tips, and how-tos on where ticks are most common, how to avoid, check for, and remove them if you are bitten to help keep you safe at work this summer and fall.
Where and When Ticks are Out and About
Ticks, like everything nasty that we want to avoid, can basically be found everywhere—they are spread throughout the United States, Canada, South America, and most other countries. They are most active from May to November any time the temperature is above freezing—when we are all outdoors doing the most fieldwork. Zoe Harvey, a writer and entomologist, says, “While most tick species have been known to stick to a set geographical range, entomologists have seen their distribution expanding, which may be caused by climate change and other factors. Because of these changes, it’s more important than ever to keep up with the CDC’s tick maps to ensure you know what kind of ticks live in the area you are working in.” Understanding which species of ticks live in the area you were bitten in is extremely important for diagnosing disease and other adverse reactions.
Blacklegged ticks, which transmit Lyme disease, are located in the Midwestern, Southern, and Eastern parts of the United States, and present the greatest risk of human infection in late spring and summer. However, for those of us who work outdoors during all different times of the year it is important to remember that ticks can bite at any time the temperature is above freezing.
Ticks are usually found in wooded, brushy areas full of tall grasses, and woodland border areas. They cling to plants to search for food, and even though they have very small legs and no wings they can move quickly on their hosts (which, during certain parts of the year, can include deer, dogs, foxes, and rodents.)
A+ Avoidance Strategies
While tick bites might seem inevitable, we have several tips that are commonly accepted by health and safety professionals and the CDC to reduce your chance of encountering them on the job.
- Walk in the center of trails and avoid going through bushes, grass, or other vegetation. If you have to work in or near vegetation, trim or remove the plants before starting work.
- Treat your work clothes with 0.5% permethrin or buy pre-treated clothes. Recent studies show that permethrin treated clothing is an increasingly effective way to reduce tick bites. Do not use permethrin on your skin.
- Spray EPA-registered insect repellant (e.g. DEET, Picaridin, etc.) on your skin to deter ticks from attaching.
- We know it's hot in summer, but if the temperature allows, wear long sleeves and long pants and tuck everything in: shirt in pants and gloves as well as pants into socks and boots. This minimizes the amount of skin contact points for ticks.
- Shower as soon as possible after being outdoors.
How to Do a (Successful) Tick Check
No matter if you were outside for a quick look at a site or a long visit taking soil samples, checking for ticks is a must.
Here are our top tick-check tips:
- Examine yourself as soon as you can after being outside. Many tick diseases take up to 24 hours to transfer and finding them as soon as possible reduces your risk of transfer considerably.
- Use a hand mirror or full-length mirror to check every part of your body for ticks. For places that are hard to see, use your hands to feel for bumps that weren’t there before.
- Check every nook and cranny: ticks often cling to warm, hard-to-see areas—use our Tick Hot Spots guide below to learn which areas to pay attention to.
- Go through your clothing and work gear and look for ticks, especially the folds and areas that are hard to see when you’re wearing them. Then, wash your clothes and dry them on a high heat.
It’s important to follow all the tips above to minimize the likelihood of contracting a tickborne illness. However, if you’re one of the many unlucky folks who find a tick on them: don’t panic. We'll walk you through how to remove it and what to do afterward.
Ditch Urban Myths, Here’s How to Safely Remove a Tick
There many urban myths about tick removal methods: varying from dangerous (set it on fire) to strange (cover it in nail polish). These methods are not safe or useful for removing ticks--when you are bitten, you want to remove the tick as soon as possible without damaging your own skin.
To safely remove a tick that has bitten you:
- Use tweezers and grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible.
- Pull directly up---try not to twist the tick.
- Check the bite to see if its mouthparts or head got stuck. If there is any part of the tick left, use tweezers to remove them.
- Clean the area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
Dispose of your nasty friend by putting it in alcohol or flushing it down the toilet. If you want to keep the tick to show your physician for identification purposes, put it in alcohol to kill it and then put it in a sealed bag or container.
If you experience a rash, fever, or aches and pains in the hours or days after you are bitten, contact your doctor immediately. If you're unsure that your symptoms are from Lyme disease or other tickborne illnesses, check out the CDC's tick illness symptoms fact sheet. Depending on your employer and their rules on health and safety, reporting your bite to them might also be necessary.
If there is one moral to the story it’s that you can never underestimate ticks and the impact they have on workplace safety. Use the strategies and tips laid out above to keep yourself, your employees, and your peers safe as they work outside this spring and fall.
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