Effective Tick-Repellent Strategies for Field Workers
If you read any job description for a lineworker, you are sure to see a reference to working outdoors in a variety of weather conditions. This is one of a number of requirements that draw people to the profession; most lineworkers enjoy spending time outside. And from time to time, every lineworker will have to work in tall grass or brush. One of the risks of working in grass or brush is, of course, exposure to ticks and the diseases they can transmit.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/ncezid/dvbd/), tick-borne diseases – such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis – account for more than 4,000 cases each year, with some leading to death. Additionally, Lyme disease annually causes more than 300,000 estimated human illnesses in the U.S. alone.
Given the threat of tick-borne diseases, how can lineworkers protect themselves? While what we’ve traditionally done may not be enough, the good news is that, as an industry, we can take some additional, simple steps to greatly reduce our chances of contracting these diseases.
You’ve probably been told time and time again to use bug spray and to tuck your pants into your socks or boots when you enter the woods or a right-of-way. While this is good advice, not everyone follows these suggestions all the time, and that’s something that needs to change. As crew members or crew leaders, it is 100 percent under our control to ensure that everyone who needs to do so uses insect repellent and tucks their pants into their socks or boots. You must make these protective measures an expectation, talk about them at safety meetings and positively recognize crew members who engage in these practices.
FR Clothing Repellent
If you are a utility worker who must wear flame-resistant (FR) clothing, the use of insect repellent has some additional requirements. DEET has been shown to repel ticks, but mainly at higher concentrations (upward of 20 percent). The challenge for lineworkers and other FR clothing users is that manufacturers do not recommend applying insect repellent with DEET to FR clothing under any circumstances. If you do use any insect repellent with DEET, it should only be applied directly to the skin using a cloth or wipe so it does not make contact with your FR clothing.
So, what kind of repellent can lineworkers use on FR clothing? One recommendation is to treat shoes and clothes with permethrin, a synthetic pesticide. Permethrin is nonflammable and specifically designed to bond with fabric for six weeks or longer. It has been tested as safe for human use and complies with multiple FR testing standards, including ASTM F1506 and ASTM F1958/F1958M. Currently there are several permethrin products designed especially for utility applications.
There is research to back up this recommendation. In a 2011 study (see www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21485369), blacklegged nymph ticks were released onto 15 volunteers who were wearing either permethrin-treated or untreated summer clothes, including T-shirts, shorts, socks and sneakers. The researchers waited a couple hours and found that the volunteers who were wearing the treated sneakers and socks were nearly 74 times less likely to get tick bites than those who had donned the untreated footwear.
Additionally, nearly 98 percent of the ticks were still alive when they were removed from the volunteers who wore the untreated clothing. Approximately 23 percent of the ticks were alive when removed from those who wore the permethrin-treated garments.
For lineworkers and anyone else who may be exposed to ticks, shoes are the most important items to treat with repellent. This is because ticks, especially nymph ticks that are difficult for the human eye to see, often stay close to the ground and first access humans via their feet.
If you are looking for permethrin-treated clothes, FR suppliers to the utility industry have released several pretreated clothing options. Or, you can treat clothing with permethrin yourself, which typically protects it for five or six washes.
Other simple steps to protect yourself from tick-borne diseases include the following;
1. In addition to spraying clothing and shoes with repellent and tucking your pants into your socks or boots, be sure to spray the inside surface of your pants with repellent, too.
2. Perform a tick check at least once per day.
3. Use duct tape or a lint roller to de-tick your clothing at the end your shift.
4. Always keep tweezers or another tick removal tool on hand, as well as a sealable storage bag to drop the ticks in.
5. Learn more about risks from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) and the TickEncounter Resource Center (www.tickencounter.org).
About the Author: Nathan Boutwell, CUSP, is the supervisor of health and safety for Avangrid Networks, Central Maine Power. He has 11 years of experience in health and safety and has worked in various industries, including utilities, power generation, energy delivery technologies and manufacturing.