Wastewater Plant Injuries Plummet With Proactive Safety

Wastewater Plant Injuries Plummet With Proactive Safety
A plastic curtain in front of a chemical pump (caustic soda) protects workers making adjustments to the pump. (Photos courtesy of Ken Schlegel)

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Working at water and wastewater plants can be dangerous, with hazards such as slippery walkways, dangerous gases and noisy, malfunctioning equipment. Workers experience an occupational injury and illness rate higher than the average for all occupations, incurring injuries ranging from sprained ankles and pulled muscles to lung infections, blindness and even death. 

A 2009 OSHA report put the IIF (injury/illness/fatality) incidence rate for the wastewater industry at 4.1 per 100 workers, compared with 3.6 cases per 100 for the nation, noting that the rate had dipped below 5.0, where it had been for several years. A major reason is that the water/wastewater industry has made safety a priority, promoting comprehensive safety and security programs. 

“Slips and trips are the number one cause of injuries along with the accompanying strains and sprains,” says Ken Schlegel, loss-prevention technician at Clean Water Services in Hillsboro, Ore. “Our injuries are pretty typical of the wastewater workplace: walking across icy pavement or down embankments, tripping over cracks in sidewalks or on hoses left out. People hurt their backs or shoulders trying to catch themselves when they fall.” 

Other injury/illness risks as reported by OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health include: 

  • Confined spaces – including sewers, pipelines, wet wells, digesters and pump stations – and the potentially dangerous environment they represent caused by buildup of gases such as methane, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. Workers are advised to wear personal gas-detection equipment and to read and follow all OSHA requirements for working in confined spaces.
  • Chemical hazards, which in the case of chlorine, may be deadly. Employees should read and understand the requirements for the chemical products they’re working with. And they should follow all recommendations for personal protective equipment when working with chemical products and clean up all chemical spills promptly.
  • Collapse of trenches can cause serious injury or death, which is why plants should use proper techniques for trenching and shoring when digging.
  • Falls (such as those Schlegel mentions) are a danger, which is why the use of fall-protection devices (railings, ramps, harnesses, belts) can prevent serious injury, as can removal of slipping or tripping hazards like cracked sidewalks or wet floors.
  • Water-borne disease caused by pathogens in wastewater. Defenses include getting vaccinations for diphtheria and other diseases, practicing good hygiene such as washing hands frequently with antibacterial soap, protecting open cuts or wounds, and avoiding contact with wastewater by wearing rubber gloves and protective clothing.
  • Drowning as a result of extreme currents and process equipment. Plants should install railing around all process tankage and pits and see that workers wear a life line and personal flotation device. 

Clean Water Services, which operates four wastewater treatment facilities, constructs and maintains flood management and water-quality projects, and manages flow into the Tualatin River, doesn’t see a lot of chemical-related issues such as burns or workers inhaling dangerous fumes. Schlegel attributes this to the organization’s emphasis on safety. 

CWS has systems in place that shield workers from the dangerous chemicals such as hypo, including double containment around pipes running from the supply tank and plastic shielding six to eight inches wide where pumps are located, so workers can reach through the strips to manipulate hoses or adjust dials. The utility, which serves 542,000 customers and has 120 employees at its wastewater plants (out of a total of 300), requires personal protective equipment: safety goggles, face shields, gloves and wrist or arm gauntlets and a chemical apron if there’s a splash hazard. And it makes a point to repair cracks in sidewalks and instill a good housekeeping culture of putting away hoses and other equipment to reduce the likelihood of falls. 

Such measures are working, judging from plant safety statistics. CWS’s Durham treatment facility is coming up on two years with no lost-time accidents while its Rock Creek plant, has gone almost a year with no lost-time accidents. 

“We take a proactive approach to safety,” Schlegel says. “In addition to an active safety committee made up of operators, mechanics, the trades and management that examines root causes of incidents, we do quarterly safety walks of all our facilities and identify hazards – from slips and trips to lighting issues. 

“We also employ a ‘safety always’ approach where we publish an article every month in our online newsletter and provide a means for employees to report unsafe conditions and recognize them for working safely. It’s all part of our commitment to provide a safe, injury-free workplace."

Keeping operators and other plant staff members safe is vital. What safety measures do you have in place at your wastewater treatment facility? Leave a comment below.



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