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valleyfever.jpg Getty Images
Fungi Coccidioides immitis, saprophytic stage, 3D illustration showing fungal arthroconidia. Pathogenic fungi that reside in soil and can cause infection coccidioidomycosis, or Valley fever.

Valley Fever Leads to Fines for Underground Construction Co.

Two workers contract fungal disease in California.

Underground Construction Co. is under Cal/OSHA scrunity after two workers contracted Valley Fever while using hand tools to dig trenches.

The agency issued serious health and safety citations to the Benicia, Calif.-based company for not assessing the hazards associated with digging in Kings, Fresno and Merced counties. 

"When soil is disturbed by activities such as digging, driving, or high winds, Valley Fever spores can become airborne and potentially be inhaled," said Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum. "Without the proper training, protection and mitigation procedures, workers are likely to be exposed and get sick."

The areas in which workers were digging are known to contain Coccidioides immitis fungal spores. The spores that cause Valley Fever live in the top two to 12 in.of soil in many parts of California. When soil is disturbed by digging, driving or high winds, fungal spores can become airborne and may be inhaled by workers who are not protected, the agency stated.

Cal/OSHA was alerted in September 2018 that two workers were hospitalized and diagnosed with the illness. Symptoms are similar to the flu and include fatigue, shortness of breath and fever. Severe cases can cause serious lung problems.  

Agency investigators found that workers were tasked with digging trenches up to 5½ ft. deep to allow access to gas pipelines for maintenance. The company did not take measures to suppress or control the harmful dust, and employees had no respiratory protection.

Exposure to the disease could have occurred in any one of the three counties where the fungal spores are known to be endemic, Cal/OSHA investigators reported.

In total, Underground Construction received three citations reaching $27,000 in proposed penalties.

Cal/OSHA provides the following steps employers should take to reduce the risk of Valley Fever:

  • Determine if a worksite is in an area where fungal spores are likely to be present.
  • Adopt site plans and work practices that minimize the disturbance of soil and maximize ground cover.
  • Use water, appropriate soil stabilizers and/or re-vegetation to reduce airborne dust.
  • Limit workers' exposure to outdoor dust in disease-endemic areas by (1) providing air-conditioned cabs for vehicles that generate dust and making sure workers keep windows and vents closed, (2) suspending work during heavy winds and (3) providing sleeping quarters, if applicable, away from sources of dust.
  • When exposure to dust is unavoidable, provide approved respiratory protection to filter particles.
  • Train supervisors and workers in how to recognize symptoms of Valley Fever and minimize exposure.

 

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