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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Developing & Implementing a Cost Effective Water Utility Safety Program

Developing & Implementing a Cost Effective Water Utility Safety Program

Even with advances in smart water technology, any supervisor knows that a utility can't run without its dedicated staff. While workers take care of equipment operations, maintenance, billing, or customer service, it's the responsibility of the person in charge to ensure these duties are being carried out in a safe environment using appropriate precautions.

Water and wastewater utilities have a history of experiencing occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities (IIF) at a higher rate than most other occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s Incidence Rates - Detailed Industry Level table from each year’s Industry Injury and Illness Data Summary Tables has generally supported this trend. Their reports show the average non-fatal incident rate for the water and sewage industry has historically been higher than the industry average as a whole.

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The data from this table was taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Incidence Rates- Detailed Industry Level for 2008 and 2017. (Click table to enlarge.)

The table above shows the rate of non-fatal injuries reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2008 and 2017. While any year can have variability, in 2008 the non-fatal injury incident rate was much higher than the industry average. In 2017 you can see that the average number of injuries has decreased since 2008 and is now closer to the industry average. These values don’t include the number of fatal injuries experienced by the water and wastewater industry, but as an overall trend, non-fatal injury reports to the Bureau of Labor Statistics support that the water industry has improved since the early and late 2000’s.

Types of Injuries
As utilities continue to prioritize and promote a safe work culture, we hope to reduce the frequency of incidents even further. There are many hazards that pose a risk to operator safety. The most frequent non-fatal water and wastewater injuries reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017 were due to over exertion during lifting, being struck by a tool or object, and falls, slips, and trips. Water and wastewater utilities also have to manage the risks posed by confined spaces, electrical equipment, trenching, road safety, ladders, hazardous chemicals, blood borne pathogens, and more.

Safety Costs
According to Bureau Veritas’ presentation at the 2008 CSWEA Maintenance and Safety Seminar, the financial costs for water and wastewater injuries can be quite expensive. Budgeting for a good safety program will protect your employees and incur less expenses than the direct and indirect costs that result from a poor safety program.

Developing and Implementing a Safety Program
Since every system faces different hazards, your safety plan should be specific to your system hazards. To get started, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends seven core elements for your system’s safety program: management leadership, worker participation, hazard identification and assessment, hazard prevention and control, education and training, program evaluation and improvement, and communication and coordination for host employers, contractors, and staffing agencies. OSHA’s Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs website provides an explanation of these elements in addition to a list of helpful tools, case studies, additional resources, and a download for the recommended practices guide.

We also encourage you to check out the Water Research Foundation’s Water Utility Safety and Health report to review safety program best practices and cost evaluations for various proactive and reactive programs. Once you’ve done your research, West Virginia Rural Association has developed an Injury and Illness Prevention Program template that systems can expand from.

Water System Specific Hazards
As you continue to promote safety in the work place remember that complacency is the adversary to injury and accident prevention. More specific  guidelines for electrical safety, traffic control, hazardous material communication, competent persons, confined space, chemical handling, chlorine exposure, fires, and waterborne disease can be found in Chapter 8 of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Intro to Small Water Systems Correspondence Course. The OSHAcademy also offers a variety of water and wastewater specific safety training. If you have a different safety question, more resources are available at WaterOperator.org’s document library or under our blog post category Operator Safety.

Featured Video - WaterClips: Financial Benchmarking for Water Utilities

Featured Video - WaterClips: Financial Benchmarking for Water Utilities

In this Featured Video, the Environmental Finance Center at UNC-Chapel Hill reviews the basics on how to properly monitor utility finances. Financial monitoring is crucial in making successful short-term and long-term management decisions to maintain optimal treatment levels, good customer service, and the longevity of your system. The financial benchmarking methods covered in this video include Current Ratio, Days Cash on Hand, Operating Ratio, and Debt Service Coverage Ratio. Implementing consistent benchmarking tools will ensure that your utility is working to cover the true system costs while planning for infrastructure depreciation and unexpected expenses.