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Addressing Allergic Reactions on the Job

Power-line workers carry out their assignments in all types of outdoor environments and thus are susceptible to all of Mother Nature’s elements, good and bad.

When humans expose themselves to those elements, some might experience allergic reactions, a safety-related topic that is rarely top of mind until a worker in the field is experiencing such a reaction. If you know you are allergic to something you may come in contact with while working, it’s critical that you make your colleagues aware of it and, more importantly, that they know how to respond.

A Personal Tale
There are personal as well as practical reasons why I’m writing this month’s Tailgate Topic. I’ve worked on and around line crews for many years, and I love the outdoors. As a young man about 40 years ago, I was stung by a wasp and had what I considered a minor reaction – my arm swelled up like Popeye’s. I didn’t think much of the situation back then, although I now recognize that I was allergic to the sting even all those years ago. At the time, I didn’t follow up with a medical professional to see exactly how allergic I was or what could happen if I got stung again in the future.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2018 when I was on vacation, doing some yard work at my cabin. I opened a can of soda and set it down on the deck. It had been sitting there for a while when I grabbed it, took a drink and then noticed there was something in my mouth besides the soda. It turned out to be a large yellowjacket wasp, which stung me on the inside of my bottom lip as I tried to spit it out. I knew from past experience that I was at least mildly allergic to wasp stings, so I went inside the cabin to take a Benadryl. It helped some, although my eyelids, lips and cheek were still quite numb, swollen and itchy. As the day and night wore on, the site of the sting didn’t seem to get any worse, so I thought I would be OK. I guess I was too tough or proud to admit that something was wrong and seek further assistance (sound familiar, lineworkers?). 

The next day, I woke up and realized I had serious swelling and numbness that were working their way down through my neck and chest. I felt quite weak. I knew I needed more than just Benadryl, so I went to the local village office to see if there was a medical clinic nearby. Luckily, there was a woman at the village office who was a first responder. She had an EpiPen that she quickly offered to me so that I could administer it myself. According to the woman’s past experiences with symptoms such as mine, the EpiPen quite possibly saved my life that day. As soon as I administered it, the numbness and swelling began to decrease immediately. When I returned home from vacation, I went to see my doctor to follow up. He explained to me that in most cases, each time an allergic reaction occurs, it likely will be worse than the last time. Suffice it to say that I now carry an EpiPen with me at all times.

Communication is Critical
I mentioned it very early on in this Tailgate, but I can’t stress enough how important it is that you let your family, friends and co-workers know about your allergies, where you keep your medication and what to do if you have an allergic reaction. It is nothing to be embarrassed about, and it may save your life one day. At a minimum, keep your medication on you, close by or in a nearby first aid kit in the event you have a reaction, and teach others to do the same if they’re not already doing so. In addition, for every job site you visit, be sure to notify your supervisor and crew members about your allergy, and always know the location of the closest medical facility so you can get checked out as soon as possible in the event you have an allergic reaction.

I also want to stress the fact that, if you’re allergic to bug bites like I am, insects generally are not beverage snobs – they will climb into most any open can or bottle if they’re able to. So, it’s a good idea to keep open cans and bottles covered or indoors, especially if you can’t keep an eye on them. I now use plastic clip-on covers I bought at a local store that prevent insects from getting into my drink, or you can choose to use a glass, which will let you see if any bugs are in your drink. 

Finally, I realize my story is just one scenario. There are many natural allergen risks that may cause someone to have an allergic reaction, including plants. Know what plants and allergen risks are common to the areas your crews work and address them in tailboards. On a personal level, your doctor can determine what you are allergic to. And don’t forget that allergies can change with age. In critical exposures, keep the appropriate medication on hand in the event you have a reaction. Do be very careful about using prescribed medications offered by someone else. It may not always work out as well as it did for me. If allergens like bee stings are a threat to life, know the location of the nearest medical facility, and let the people around you know about your allergies and exposure symptoms, and how they can help if you become incapacitated.

About the Author: Dean Newkirk, CUSP, is currently working at SaskPower Corp. as a specialist in learning solutions, developing standard operating procedures for transmission and distribution. He also has held several other power utility industry roles over the past 35 years, including lineman, safety specialist, and construction and operations manager.

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