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Lab student's Zika infection highlights hazards

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no jurisdiction over a workplace safety incident in which a laboratory worker contracted Zika.

Last week, the first occupational Zika case was reported in the United States, when a laboratory student volunteer at the University of Pittsburgh contracted the virus from a needle stick while working with the Zika virus on a laboratory experiment, according to safety and health officials.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act covers most private employees, but not volunteers nor state and local government workers unless they are in a state that has an OSHA-approved state plan, which Pennsylvania does not.

“Unfortunately, OSHA does not have jurisdiction over that because the worker was technically a volunteer,” Chris Brown, a specialist in public health emergency preparedness and response, OSHA's Office of Emergency Management and Preparedness told members of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety & Health in Washington on Wednesday. “We don't have any ability to go in and enforce related to that.”

However, agency officials have been in contact with the university because workers at other laboratories are involved in the same processes the student was working on.

“It was basically a sharps injury, and that's probably going to be the biggest hazard that we'll see in laboratories,” he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA issued interim guidance in April for protecting outdoor workers, health care and laboratory workers and others from occupational exposure to the Zika virus. While the guidelines are “primarily advisory in nature,” they do cover how OSHA standards such as those governing bloodborne pathogens or the use of personal protective equipment apply, Mr. Brown said.

The viral disease is mainly transmitted by mosquitoes, but can also be spread through bloodborne transmission, aerosol exposure, and sexual transmission, according to the CDC. While there has been no active transmission reported to date within the continental United States, more than 1,300 transmitted cases have been reported in U.S. territories, mainly Puerto Rico. In addition, 691 travel-associated cases and 11 sexually-transmitted cases have been identified in the United States.

Employers should consider reassigning any employee or partner of an employee with reproductive plans to indoor tasks to reduce their risk of mosquito bites or to rotate workers between job duties, according to the guidelines.

“OSHA does understand that there are some job functions that might preclude employers from being able to rotate workers inside, but as much as possible doing that will lessen worker exposure,” Mr. Brown said, citing the fact that the construction and agriculture industries combined make up about 5.5% of total U.S. employment.

OSHA is currently simplifying the language in the guidelines into a “Quick Card” — a shorter summary of a standard or regulation's key requirements or recommendations — a booklet that will be translated into Spanish, he said.