It’s snake season and workers need to be prepared.
By Alexandra Walsh
As the average daytime temperature rose above 60° Fahrenheit this spring, snakes across the country exited hibernation or a sluggish lack of activity and sought out warm, sunny spots to increase their body heat.
Now that it’s summer, an increase in activity from snakes comes with their increased body heat. Summer is mating season. When the average daytime temperatures are around 80° Fahrenheit, snakes limit their activity to the early morning and late evenings, typically dawn and dusk. This allows them to soak up heat before and after a cold night and avoid the scorching heat of midday.
Each year, an estimated 7000 to 8000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States, and about five of those people die. The number of deaths would be much higher if people did not seek medical care.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), workers are far more likely to suffer long-term injuries from snakebites than to die from them. For those bitten by rattlesnakes, 10% to 44% will have lasting injuries. An example of a disability or permanent injury is the ability to use a finger or to lose part or all of one.
Employers should train their workers about their risk of exposure to venomous snakes, how to prevent and protect themselves from snakebites, and what they should do if they are bitten.
Types of Snakes
Venomous snakes found in the United States include rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths or water moccasins, and coral snakes. A venomous bite is called an “envenomation,” an injection of venom. Although death from venomous snakebites is rare, a worker with a severe injection of venom or allergy to snake venom can die from a venomous bite.
Rattlesnakes are the largest venomous snakes in the United States, and many species live in U.S. habitats. Whether coiled or stretched out, they can quickly and accurately strike a third or more of their body length from any position.
Rattlesnakes may use their rattles as a warning when they feel threatened, although they do not always rattle before biting. They may be found sunning themselves near logs, boulders, or open areas.
Rattlesnakes live in many habitats where people work—mountains, prairies, deserts, and beaches. Antivenom is recommended for treating signs or symptoms of a worsening injury to body tissue due to venom being injected.
The risk of worker encounters with venomous snakes may increase as changes in local climate allow venomous snake species to expand into ever more favorable habitats.
Copperheads vary in color from reddish to golden tan. The colored bands on their bodies are typically hourglass-shaped. They have a deep facial pit between each eye and their nostril. Found in the eastern states and extending as far west as Texas, copperheads are often found in forests, rocky areas, swamps, or near sources of water like rivers. Most adult copperheads are 18 to 36 inches long.
They are not usually aggressive but will often freeze when frightened and will strike in defense if threatened, contacted, or interacted with.
Workers are more likely to be bitten when they unknowingly step on or near a copperhead. Giving antivenom to a copperhead snakebite patient as soon as possible helps limbs to recover faster and lessens the chance a limb will be disabled after a copperhead has injected venom.
Cottonmouths (Water Moccasins)
Adult cottonmouth snakes average 50 to 55 inches long. The adult snake’s skin is dark tan, brown, or nearly black with vague black or dark brown cross-bands. Juvenile snakes have a bold cross-banded pattern of brown or orange with a yellow tail. Cottonmouths are often found in or near wetland areas, rivers, lakes, and swamps in the southeastern states.
These snakes are sometimes confused with non-venomous king snakes, which have similar colored bands but arranged differently. Coral snakes tend to hide in piles of leaves or burrow into the ground in wooded, sandy, or marshy areas of the southern states.
Employers should protect their workers from venomous snakebites by training them about:
- Their risk of being bitten by venomous snakes
- How to identify venomous snakes
- How to prevent snakebites
- What they should do if they see a snake or if a snake bites them.
Workers should take these steps to prevent a snakebite:
- Don’t touch or handle any snake.
- Stay away from tall grass and piles of leaves.
- Avoid climbing on rocks or piles of wood where a snake may be hiding.
- Be aware that snakes tend to be most active at dawn and dusk and in warm weather.
- Wear boots and long pants when working outdoors.
- Wear leather gloves when handling brush and debris.
Signs or symptoms of a snakebite may vary depending on the type of snake but may include:
- Puncture marks at the wound
- Redness, swelling, bruising, bleeding, or blistering around the bite
- Severe pain and tenderness at the site of the bite
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Labored breathing (in extreme cases, breathing may stop altogether)
- Rapid heart rate, weak pulse, low blood pressure
- Disturbed vision
- Metallic, mint, or rubber taste in the mouth
- Increased salivation and sweating
- Numbness or tingling around the face or limbs
- Muscle twitching.
Workers should take these steps if a snake bites them:
- Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Dial 911 or call the local emergency medical service:
o Antivenom is the treatment for serious snake venom. The sooner antivenom can be started, the sooner irreversible damage from venom can be stopped.
o Driving oneself to the hospital is not advised because people with snakebites can become dizzy or pass out.
- Take a photograph of the snake from a safe distance if possible. Identifying the snake can help with treatment of the snakebite.
- Keep calm.
- Inform your supervisor.
- Apply first aid while waiting for EMS staff to get you to the hospital:
o Lie or sit down keeping the bite in a neutral position that is comfortable.
o Remove rings and watches before swelling starts.
o Wash the bite with soap and water.
o Cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing.
o Mark the leading edge of tenderness and swelling on the skin and write the time alongside it.
Do not do any of the following:
- Do not pick up the snake or try to trap it.
- Do not handle a venomous snake, not even a dead one or its decapitated head.
- Do not wait for symptoms to appear if bitten—get medical help right away.
- Do not apply a tourniquet.
- Do not slash the wound with a knife or cut it in any way.
- Do not try to suck out the venom.
- Do not apply ice or immerse the wound in water.
- Do not drink alcohol as a painkiller.
- Do not take pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen.
The most likely geographic locations in the United States where outdoor workers would encounter venomous snakes are in the South, Southwest, and West. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the greatest number of deaths from venomous snakebites occurred in the southern and midwestern United States in 2008-2015.
The number of venomous snakebites is gradually increasing in most states. The risk of worker encounters with venomous snakes may increase as changes in local climate allow venomous snake species to expand into ever more favorable habitats. Added to that, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts may affect and increase the risk of worker encounters with venomous snakes.
University of Florida/Florida Museum of Natural History. Guide to Florida’s Venomous Snakes. www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/florida-snake-id
North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension:Snakes. https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/snakes
University of Florida IFAS Extension. Florida’s Venomous Snakes. https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/levyco/2017/09/20/floridasvenomous-snakes
Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.