IBEW Local 1245 Business Representatives were recently informed of a case of Valley Fever from a PG&E lineman who went undiagnosed for several months. The member, Aaron Tulchinsky, was not aware of the health risk associated with Valley Fever in the Central Valley, and spoke up to the union because he wants other members to know about his experience, and hopes that those who move to or work in the Valley understand the risks.
Tulchinsky initially took a troubleman bid from the East Bay to Lemoore, in Kings County, in mid-2015. Within months after beginning his new assignment, Tulchinsky started to exhibit some of the symptoms of Valley Fever, including fatigue and aching joints, but he did not attribute the symptoms to the spore-related infectious disease. He did, however, see doctors to try and run down his ailment, and it was then that his medical odyssey began.
After a battery of tests that included multiple CT scans, liver tests, colonoscopy, endoscopy and numerous blood tests, doctors discovered a large build-up of fluid in Tulchinsky’s abdomen and presented a possible diagnosis of cancer. Doctors had elected to do surgery to determine how far the suspected cancer had spread. But once the lineman was opened up and the fluid was drained, the doctors discovered that Tulchinsky did not have cancer, but that it was in fact Valley Fever, and had already spread to almost every internal organ in his body. He was quickly closed up and sent to an infectious disease specialist for treatment. The specialist was frank in his assessment, and told Tulchinsky that due to the advanced stage of the infection, he would need to immediately begin a medication regimen to hold the fever in check, and would need to continue to take the medication for his entire life — with no exceptions – in order to keep the potentially fatal disease at bay.
Because he was not informed of the connection between his symptoms and the fever, Tulchinsky did not notify the company nurse line until he was diagnosed. Since then, awareness of Valley Fever among Tulchinsky’s work group has increased, leading to another Valley Fever diagnosis and another lineman with symptoms.
According to the August 5 edition of the Cal-OSHA Reporter article, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has declared August to be Valley Fever Awareness Month.
Valley Fever is carried by a spore that resides on the surface of the ground and is ingestible when the spores become airborne and are breathed into the lungs. Symptoms of the disease include flu-like symptoms such as fever, night sweats, fatigue, coughing, chest pain, headaches, rashes and joint aches. At-risk tasks include digging, truck driving, construction work, operating heavy machinery and any task that disturbs the ground. Mitigation strategies include keeping workers upwind of soil disturbance, wetting soil before it is disturbed and other means of keeping dust down. Workers can also wear respirators.
If left untreated, Valley Fever can be a serious debilitating disease. Every year, 1,000 people receive hospital treatment for Valley Fever, and about eight out of every 100 people who are hospitalized die from the infection annually.
According to the CDPH, high-risk areas include Fresno, Kings, Kern, Madera, Merced, Tulare, and San Luis Obispo counties. It is found to a lesser extent in Tehama, Butte, Glenn, Yolo, San Joaquin, Alameda, Stanislaus, San Benito, Monterey, Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino counties.
The largest case of Valley Fever reported was in 2012 in San Luis Obispo County, in which 28 workers were infected with the disease while working on a solar power project.