Venomous knowledge

Venomous knowledge

Even before little Miss Muffet sat on her Tuffet, human civilisation had a morbid fascination with all types of venomous creatures, notes Jonathan Leeming, CEO of Venom Works. But do we really have to be afraid of them? And how should we manage them in the workplace?

“What’s worse than lying in bed watching a rain spider crawling on the ceiling? You can feel it plotting and scheming on how it’s going to get you …” Leeming begins, with the audience squirming in their seats. “Often it’s a paranoia thing – it’s in our imagination. The general perception is that venomous creatures will bite us, sting us or do some sort of harm to us …”

It was clear that many people in the audience attending Leeming’s talk at Noshcon 2014 were there for the morbid fascination aspect (yes, we definitely include ourselves), but there was an altogether more serious side to the talk. Human industrialisation being what it is, when we alter the natural environment, we are bound to come into contact with wildlife.

“This is especially important in the workplace, for instance on the mines, but that’s no reason to get upset and fear these animals – understanding goes a long way,” Leeming notes. “We often find, however, that organisations don’t want training on venomous animals until the day they have a snake in the workshop. That’s not a proactive way to go about it,” he says.

It’s not as big a deal as one would imagine, either. Leeming points out that, as with any health and safety risk, managing venomous animals the right way reduces all the associated risks. “With the right mindset, the correct training and the correct personal protective equipment, you can do just about anything.”

This is what Venom Works aims to do, often interactively, by making use of live animals. “We try to touch something inside people, instead of telling them what to do. We look at the people side, the environmental side and the safety side; they all fit together. If you educate people, they will protect and respect the environment – and they will look at animals in a very different way.

“Why must you kill a snake in the workplace? Most people get bitten by a snake when trying to kill it – usually on their hands. There’s no way you’d get bitten on your hands when you’re just walking in the bush … A bite on the hand means you were trying to handle the animal,” Leeming explains. “All we want employees to do when they find a venomous animal is to not try to kill it, but to call someone to remove it. Those basic steps will promote health and safety with regard to venomous animals.”

“Has anyone in the audience died from a spider bite?”

“The fact is that we have zero direct spider-bite related deaths in our country,” Leeming notes, despite us all having highly dangerous brown button spiders nesting around our homes. “Look for spiky egg sacks under places such as windowsills. They are cosmopolitan creatures; they’ve spread throughout the world due to the moving of goods, but there are a lot of stories, rumours and misdiagnoses regarding spider bites.”

The fact is, for spiders, snakes, scorpions, bees and wasps, venom is a very important form of defence. They won’t just take the first opportunity to waste it, but rather send a warning signal or try to retreat before biting or stinging.

“To get bitten by a snake you have to do something to get that reaction from it. Snakes are not aggressive – they are defensive,” says Leeming. “Look at the Cape Cobra, it rears up and spreads its hood as a warning not to go any nearer, instead of hiding in the shadows until you walk past so it can bite your ankles … If you back away, it will back down and move on.”

We all know that Scorpions with large pincers and thin tails are the least venomous, but those with big tails and small pincers are highly venomous. In South Africa, two species are known to cause deaths. “If you’re stung by the world’s least venomous scorpion, you’ll itch for about two minutes and that’s it. Get stung by one of the dangerous ones and it’s a ride in a speeding ambulance to the hospital, and hope they have anti-venom … the only treatment for highly venomous scorpions.”

Leeming notes that knowing the behaviour of these creatures is a good thing. Scorpions, for example, come out after the first rains – which makes that the best time to launch awareness campaigns.

The insect we should all be especially weary of, however, is the paper wasp – probably the most venomous creature people most often come into contact with, as they like to make their nests around human habitation. “More people die of wasp and bee stings than snake bites, spider bites and scorpion stings combined … The big risk if you’re stung is an allergic reaction to the venom, called anaphylaxis. Again, learning more about them makes them more manageable,” Leeming advises.

“A little bit on information goes a long way …”

“… the problem is how to spread it to the whole organisation,” Leeming notes, delving into the Venom Works approach. This consists of a training and skills-development plan; from employee induction, general awareness lectures with live creatures, first aid, removal and relocation and dealing with anti-venom. (Leeming says that there is a lot of misinformation about anti-venom, as well as a lot to learn about the management of it, but organisations mustn’t be afraid to stock and use it.)

Skills development is aimed at the different levels of an organisation with increasing roles and responsibilities. “Touching the baseline workforce is best done with live animals, not by giving them big manuals. Working with animals is all about being confident and doing so in a calm manner. Just letting someone hold the creature is a powerful way to change their mind about it.”

Leeming also notes that spending a bit of the training budget on the employees, who have not been trained in first aid, and teaching them the basic policies and procedures of how not to get bitten or stung, means that fewer first aiders will be required.

Correct risk assessment is also a must. This includes baseline risk assessment, policies and procedures, site location and the location of the preferred medical facility; “simple things”, according to Leeming. “It is also important for your organisation to have organisational policies and procedures aligned to venomous animals.”

It’s clear that managing the risks associated with these creatures is no more daunting than the perceptions most of us have of them. “We’re told that if they bite us we could die, that all snakes are venomous or evil, that nature is out to get us – the reason we’re afraid of these animals is not based on fact,” Leeming reiterates. Not that it helps with much of the squirming …

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