Poison Ivy Exposure

The grass is growing, flowers are blooming, and creepy crawly plants are beginning their annual attempt to take control of our municipal parks and grounds around buildings. Many cities and towns hire summer labor to assist in controlling their invasions. Are these employees receiving the vital training they require to protect themselves from exposure to poison ivy? Do they know what to wear? Can your staff identify the plant? Do they know how to medically treat an exposure to poison ivy?

At first glance one might not think these are exposures worthy of our time, but contact with poison ivy can cost an employee and the employer several days of lost productivity due to time off, distraction from normal daily tasks, and medical costs. The following are some basic tips, which can be used to educate your summer staff about how they can prevent injury or illness due to exposures with poison ivy.

Identification

Knowing what poison ivy looks like is key to preventing exposure. Also important is determining how to safeguard oneself from physical exposure to the sticky resin (urushiol), which causes the irritation and blistering symptoms of contact with the plant. for poison ivy. Remember these characteristics to help you correctly identify poison ivy. It usually grows around lakes, creeks and streams in wooded areas. The plant is generally a small trailing shrub with a hairy rope-like vine or a freestanding shrub. It normally has three leaflets (groups of leaves all on the same small stem coming off a larger main stem), but the leaves are not consistent. Some may be smooth on the edges, while others may have lobes. Generally at least one of the leaves has a pronounced lobe that sticks out like a thumb. This makes the leaf look similar to a mitten. The leaves are green in the summer and red in the fall. The plant also produces small yellow or green flowers and white berries.

Protection

Upon identifying the plant prepare to deal with it without exposing yourself to the urushiol. Most cities and towns want this pesky plant removed from parks and grounds around buildings so take the necessary precautions to remove or at least control the plant.

First wear protective clothing. Long sleeve shirts, long pants, socks, at least ankle high boots, and gloves. If you are planning on burning the plants (make sure to contact your local fire department for burning regulations in your region of Oklahoma) take them out away from populated areas and wear facemasks. The urushiol can be carried airborne in the smoke and ash and can be inhaled causing an exposure to the mouth and airway.

Second, after working with or in the plants, immediately remove clothing with protective disposable gloves. Wash the clothes immediately and wipe down (with alcohol and water) any tools used while working in the plants, your boots and any materials which came in contact with the contaminated clothes and tools. Placing contaminated clothes in a hamper or leaving contaminated shoes and equipment in a place where others make contact with them could cause them to contract poison ivy.

Third, apply an outdoor skin cleaner such as “Tecnu” to the exposed areas of your skin. Tecnu will breakdown the urushiol, which will otherwise bond with proteins once it is absorbed into the skin.

Finally, shower using warm water and soap (rinse off the soap well after use).

Treatment

If you did not clean up quickly enough or your skin is so sensitive that cleaning didn’t help, redness and swelling will appear within 12 to 48 hours. Blisters and itching will follow. The blisters are not contagious, nor can the fluid from them further spread on the affected person’s body. Further spreading is probably due to the urushiol absorbing at different rates into the skin. However, it is recommended not to scratch the blisters because your hands could have germs on them that might cause an infection. The rash and blisters will disappear in 14 to 20 days, but most people require relief from the itching and seek some form of treatment. For mild cases wet compresses or soaking in cool water may help. Oral antihistamines can also relieve the itching. Over-the-counter topical corticosteroids or hydrocortisone such as Cortaid or Lanacort are safe and effective ways to temporarily relieve itching. For severe cases seek counsel from a dermatologist or physician as soon as possible after exposure.

One final word of caution- Poison ivy can be contracted year round. The resin (urushiol) does not dry up in the winter. Also dead poison ivy may still contain the resin. Cases have been reported by researchers stating rashes have occurred from plants that were in specimen jars for up to five years. Remember to train your summer staff before sending them out. It can save you and them time, money, and discomfort. If you need assistance in developing a training program for your staff contact OMAG Loss Control Services.

At a Glance: Avoiding Stings and Bites from Insects and Spiders

Another frequent injuries that happen to outside workers during the warmer months are insect stings and spider bites. Here are a few tips to help avoid a painful and potentially serious injury.

  • Don’t use scented soaps, colognes, perfumes, or lotions.
  • Avoid wearing bright colored clothes.
  • Inspect your work area, looking for wasp nests, spider webs, and ant beds prior to beginning your work.
  • Wear gloves
  • If stung use a credit card to scrape out the stinger.
  • Seek first aid immediately.
  • Know if you are allergic and inform co-workers.
  • Use insect repellent that contains DEET.

Poison Ivy Exposure was written by Kip Prichard, OMAG Loss Control Specialist. You may contact the author at: kprichard@omag.org. The information in this bulletin is intended solely for general informational purposes and should not be construed as or used as a substitute for legal advice or legal opinion with respect to specific situations, since such advice requires an evaluation of precise factual circumstances by an attorney. The Oklahoma Municipal Assurance Group does not represent or endorse any group, site or product mentioned in the article.

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