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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.

Methane Safety at Wastewater Plants

Methane Safety at Wastewater Plants
Last week, a large explosion at a water reclamation facility in Calumet, IL served as a somber reminder of the importance of following safe practices when dealing with methane gas or any flammable material at treatment plants. While no one was killed, there were injuries and some of these were severe.

With this in mind, there is no better time than now to review safety procedures and training practices for working around potentially explosive materials like methane. 

An important first safety step, according to this Spring 2018 article in Missouri WEA's Current Magazine, is to check your facility for gas leaks and accumulations. When doing this, it is better to use a combustible gas meter than to rely on your sense of smell, because an individual's nose can become desensitized to the tell-tale rotten-egg smell over time. In addition, it is essential that workers know how to use monitors properly, and test them regularly.

Other recommendations include the installation of an automatic fan/ventilation system and a permanent gas detection system. 

Finally, as this safety presentation from Suez points out, never perform hot work unless explosion risks have been identified and eliminated. If you need a visual reminder about why this is so important, this video from the US Chemical Society & Hazard Investigation Board (USCSB) lays out the events leading up to a fatal Florida wastewater plant explosion in 2006. 

Gas and chemical hazards are an invisible but unavoidable fact in the operations of a wastewater treatment plant. Get a step ahead of the game by reviewing these tips and following the correct protocol - it's the best way to ensure that you return home safely each workday.

Focus on Chlorine Safety

Focus on Chlorine Safety

Chlorine is one of the most widely used industrial chemicals in the world today, with 13 million tons produced annually in the United States alone. And although there are alternative treatment methods, the majority of water systems still use some form of chlorine for disinfection because it offers an affordable and well understood means of eliminating waterborne diseases. In fact, filtration of drinking water plus the use of chlorine has been called one of the most significant public health advancements of the 20th century.

Yet every treatment technology has its risks, and it is critical to understand the dangers. That is why your employee safety training programs are so important. Here are some supplemental chlorine safety resources from our document library to help support an active chlorine safety/emergency response program at your plant. 

In addition, chlorine safety topics are covered on operator certification exams and are a critical component of operator trainings. You can use the keyword box to search our national training calendar for upcoming opportunities. 

Responding to Cold Weather Main Breaks

Recent extreme cold weather has affected a large numbers of private and public water lines across the country, resulting in low pressure, main breaks and water service disruptions, including this one at New York's JFK airport.  During the cold snap over the 2018 New Year's holiday, the St. Louis region alone had to deal with 60 breaks per day, with more than 40 crews out at a time. 

Responding to these events, both the dramatic and the more "invisible" ones, can be particularly challenging and can put utility staff at risk. Here are some resources that can help when frigid weather causes trouble: 

  • USEPA's Extreme Cold and Winter Storms Incident Action Checklist
  • Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Intro to Small System Systems chapter section on methods for thawing out frozen water lines (p. 181).
  • Of course, prevention is the best cure, so here is Indiana AWWA's updated winterizing checklist for ideas on how to prepare for freezing temperatures, snow, ice and sleet at your utility and around town the next time around. For even more readiness tips, take a look at this article on how to make water infrastructure winter-ready. 

Need a good public education tool to explain the water main break repair process to the general public? Check out this video from the city of Midland, Michigan showing how water distribution crews handle main breaks during the cold winter months. And here is another example from the city of Arlington, VA.

Featured Video: Lockout/Tagout

Why do things never seem to break when the weather's nice out? Somehow, whether it's the roof over your house, the battery in your car, or the machinery at your utility, things always seem to have a way of breaking down right when it's pouring rain, or there's a raging blizzard, or the temperature's over 100. Probably it's just that those are the breakdowns we find more memorable, while the quick fixes on sunny spring mornings fade into the background. Whatever the reason, the important thing to remember is to be safe, no matter what life is throwing at you while you're out getting your hands dirty. One important maintenance safety practice is known as lockout/tagout, or what OSHA now calls the Control of Hazardous Energy. This practice helps ensure that moving parts don't move when you're working on them (unless you want them to), and that no electricity is flowing through equipment that can shock you while you're repairing it. This week's video introduces the concept a little further, and explains how vital it is to worker safety. You can view it on YouTube here.

For more on lockout/tagout, see the OSHA page on hazardous energy. For more on lockout/tagout at water utilities, search our document database using the category "Safety" and the word "lockout" (without the quote marks) typed in the keyword search box.