That itches just reading the words. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac have ruthless defense mechanisms that are caustic to the skin. (Caustic means it irritates, burns, or causes a rash on contact). These plants contain a sap within their roots, stems, leaves, and fruits. That sap is released when the plants are bruised or crushed, easily contaminating the skin, clothing, shoes, tools, even animals.
Around 85% of the population have an allergic reaction to these plants. Typically the reaction is a rash with itchy skin. Some unfortunate cases develop lung irritation from inhaling the smoke from burning the plants. In the early phases of a construction project it is very possible to come into contact with these plants, so here are the hazards and solutions.
- Grows everywhere in the U.S. except for Hawaii and Alaska
- In the East, Midwest, and South it grows as a vine
- Northern and Western regions it grows as a shrub
- Each leaf has 3 leaflets, which are green in summer and red in fall
- Eastern regions it grows as a low shrub
- Western regions it grows to 6 foot tall clumps, or vines up to 30 feet long
- Oak-like fuzzy leaves in clusters of 3, with yellow berries
- Grows in standing water in the Northeast and Midwest
- Grows in swampy areas of the Southeast
- Each leaf has 7-13 smooth-edged leaflets
- Can grow up to 15 feet tall, green in the summer and red/orange/yellow in the fall
Signs and Symptoms
All three of these plants produce the same types of reactions which include: Itching, Redness, Burning Sensation, Swelling, Blisters, and Rash for up to 10 days.
Solutions and Prevention
You won’t find a direct standard in the OSHA regulations about Poison Ivy, it is covered by a few blanket regulations called Health Hazards in Construction. The solutions for biological hazards are all about PPE, Hazard Awareness, and Training.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, tucked into gloves and boots
- Wear gloves, cloth or leather as to not tear while working
- Apply barrier creams to the skin. These keep the plants oils from soaking in
- Train employees to identify the plants, and the proper precautions to take
- Keep rubbing alcohol in the first aid kit, it can remove the oil within 30 min of contact and potentially stop the reaction
- Spend the time at the end of the day to clean up yourself, equipment, and clothing to prevent contaminating your family
Not all hazards have direct rules. As a biological hazard it affects individuals differently, so it is better to lean to the side of caution. Remember the overall rule of safety is to provide a workplace that is free from recognized hazards so people can work comfortably and return home safely.
For more Toolbox Talks related to Health Hazards, check out these articles: Wood Dust, Ticks, Heat Stress