Remember the first time a swarm of wasps pushed you into one of your customers’ swimming pools? No? Shoot! I guess the humiliation is all mine.
It was about 10 years ago, and my client had mentioned that wasps were regularly going to the pool to get a drink. He could see them going in and out of the bushes. So I took a look — unprotected. As soon as I opened one of the bushes, I spotted a nest of paper wasps. They spotted me, too. About a dozen of them came at me, full throttle. I turned to run and plunked straight into the pool. I managed to escape unscathed, although the sting of embarrassment stayed with me for the rest of the day. (I had dry clothes to change into, but no dry shoes; every squishy step reminded me how foolish I had been.)
My mistake, of course, was poking around the bushes without my bee suit and veil. I did a lot of that when I was young: figuring I was smarter than the pests and neglecting to take the appropriate precautions with personal protective equipment (PPE). Turns out that’s not smart at all, particularly when you’re dealing with the types of wildlife we manage here at Critter Getter. Arizona is crawling with dangerous pests, from Africanized bees to venomous snakes and high-spirited bobcats. If we’re not diligent in our safety efforts, we can sustain life-threatening injuries.
Now that I’m getting older and a little wisdom is setting in, I respect the animals and insects we work with, and I do everything in my power to protect my employees and myself. Of course, the state mandates safety training, which is a great start, but it’s vital for those of us who are responsible for teams of technicians to reinforce the importance of sticking to the rules we learn and never taking shortcuts when it comes to protecting ourselves, our customers and their loved ones (including their pets) and the environment.
Here are some of the PPE essentials I’ve adopted over the years — some conventional, some not:
- Gloves. Kevlar gloves are a necessity for my crew, because they protect us from wildlife bites. We have a lot of run-ins with feral cats as well as bobcats, and these heavy, bite-proof gloves literally save our skin. In situations where we are not facing a biting adversary, we wear regular leather work gloves to protect our hands from cuts and other injuries. I insist that my technicians wear gloves all the time, if only to protect themselves from the pesticides and germs they encounter. I even keep a box of inexpensive, disposable surgical gloves in my truck for situations where I need protection with a high level of dexterity.
- Boots. Steel-toed boots are great protection against snake strikes. We pair them up with chaps or gaiters to protect ourselves from foot to knee. They’re not guaranteed to save you from a snake bite — you have to practice safe handling as well — but the extra layer of protection does help.
- Bee Suit and Helmet/Veil. As mentioned previously, you don’t want to get caught unprotected when an angry swarm heads your way. This gear is mandatory when stinging insects are involved.
- Respirator. Our chemicals have come a long way since DDT and chlordane, but it’s still not ideal to breathe them in all the time. It’s a good practice to use a respirator anytime chemicals are being applied. I wasn’t a consistent user of this type of equipment until one day I went into a sneezing fit during a bed bug treatment. A product that had previously never bothered me suddenly set off my allergies (likely due to the large quantity of the pesticide needed for bed bugs). Now I take no chances.
- Ear Plugs. Vacuum systems can be loud, impairing your hearing temporarily after you finish cleaning out an attic, for example, and possibly for the longer term if you do a lot of vacuum work. I’ve found the small squeezable ear plugs to be enough to cut the noise and minimize the aural aftereffects.
- Long-Sleeved Uniform. Of course we all adhere to this one. When we’re dealing with bees or wasps, we take the additional precaution of taping our pant legs to minimize areas of possible exposure.
- Knee Pads. I would have laughed about this 20 years ago when I was first starting out. But today, my aging body appreciates the extra cushion as I’m investigating crawlspaces and attic floors. A couple of decades of this kind of work can be rough on knees and limbs.
- Baseball Cap. Let’s just say my hair isn’t as full as it once was. A ball cap provides extra protection when I stand up too fast and bang into a window shingle or a bookshelf. Of course, hats keep the sun out of our eyes so we can see what we’re doing, too.
Additionally, we conduct monthly inspections to ensure our technicians are properly equipped with extra water for washing out their eyes when needed, well-stocked first aid/safety and spill kits, a fully charged fire extinguisher and all of the other PPE we feel is necessary for keeping them safe. We hold monthly safety meetings, too, focusing on a certain safety topic and insect or animal at each meeting. That’s 12 opportunities for us to address safety issues and offer our team additional training. Of course, they each get their six additional credit hours each year, as mandated by the state of Arizona.
Together, these safety efforts add up to protecting our employees so that they can live long, happy, productive lives.
By the way, I did get my revenge on those paper wasps. They might have chuckled as they heard me sloshing toward them in my bee suit that afternoon, but I most definitely had the last laugh.
As told to PCT contributor Donna DeFranco.