The active agent in poison ivy/oak/sumac — Urushiol (pronounced OOH-ROO-SHEE-ALL) — is a clear, oily substance often also referred to as a resin. It is found in every fiber of poison oak/ivy/sumac plants and is amazingly potent. It will cause a rash to break out in approximately 75 percent of the population when it comes into contact with the skin.

When the sap of a poison ivy plant (or its cousins) touches your skin, it’s usually just a matter of time before the rash begins, unless the urushiol in the sap is washed off in 5 to 10 minutes. Urushiol oil binds with the skin after about 10 minutes and becomes very difficult to remove. At that point, a normal shower actually tends to spread the resulting rash, rather than help mitigate it.

Urushiol causes a primary irritation of the skin, proportional to the amount of oil involved. The rash usually appears within 24 to 72 hours, beginning as swollen red patches, with a few fluid-filled blisters. The blisters become larger as the reaction progresses, later breaking down and weeping. In its final stages, the entire affected area is covered by an oozing, scaling crust.

Importantly, a person not allergic to urushiol the first time they come into contact with it can become allergic as the skin sensitizes to the oil. It’s a matter of time and the volume of the urushiol exposure.

Protecting employees

Several steps can be taken to minimize potential exposure to your employees and others.

1) Build awareness: The best way to combat urushiol exposure is through employee awareness. Make your employees completely aware of what the plants look like and the dangers of carrying urushiol back to the shop on tools or home to their families on their clothing or lunchbox. Provide photos and other visual aids to help identify the plants in the field. The old saying, “leaves of three, let it be” still applies, although poison sumac has 7 to 13 leaves on each branch.

Make certain your employees know the dangers of burning urushiol and breathing the smoke. Masks might protect them from breathing in urushiol, but will be of little help to their unprotected, exposed skin or to unsuspecting neighbors or co-workers who are not properly equipped.

2) Provide on-site response: Equip employees with an on-the-spot means of effectively removing urushiol from their skin as soon as possible after exposure. A cleanser, specially formulated for removing urushiol, will do the trick. If urushiol is completely removed from the skin within several hours of exposure, there is an excellent chance the rash can be avoided in the first place.

When exposed, it is critically important to find a means of breaking the bond the urushiol has with the skin, so it can be removed before the rash breaks out. Simply washing the affected area with regular soap will usually not help. Urushiol is very difficult to remove, especially after 10 minutes, without chemically breaking its bond with the skin. An immediate remedy should be available, on trucks and in first aid kits, for quickly addressing actual or probable exposure. Individual packets of a special cleanser for removing urushiol can be sent home with workers to be used during/prior to a thorough shower. Removing the urushiol before going to bed is vital, so the urushiol isn’t spread onto bed linens.

3) Provide pre-exposure barriers: Employees and others who have exhibited a specific sensitivity to urushiol in the past should be counseled about ways to avoid re-infection and minimize the frequency and severity of outbreaks. This involves education and possibly the use of a pre-exposure barrier lotion before going outdoors. These lotions mitigate the potential for urushiol to bind with the skin in the first place, allowing it to be more easily washed away. It is important to realize, however, that pre-exposure barriers do not render urushiol inactive, so the same possibilities of spreading infection to others still exists. Using a special cleanser is still necessary — even when using a pre-exposure barrier.

4) Quickly treat victims: Finally, identify a means of effectively exfoliating affected areas, for those cases where a rash develops. It is imperative to remove the urushiol and allow the healing process to proceed. Early treatment regimens can often minimize the severity of the episode. The same special cleanser used to avoid a rash shortly after exposure can be used to help stop the rash from spreading if initial treatment wasn’t quick enough. Immediately removing existing urushiol from the skin at the first signs of a rash can greatly reduce the severity and duration of the rash.

The potential for contracting a moderate to severe skin rash — sufficient to damage the productivity of outdoor workers and infect their associates and families — remains a significant concern. It is, however, not a cause for issuing full hazmat suits. Instead, it calls for adequate planning, training and preparation for any occurrence. Being prepared can have a profound impact on your employees’ quality of life, as well as their on-the-job productivity.