There are more dangerous trades — firefighting and coal mining come to mind — but plumbing presents a long list of potential hazards. This is true because jobs and job sites vary widely. Plumbers obviously face different risks in different work environments. Whether you are snaking a line, installing a water heater or soldering pipe on a multi-story apartment complex, a plumber, installer or contractor needs to think: safety first.   

“PHCC has a core belief in helping keep members’ workplaces safe,” said Chuck White, vice president of technical and code services for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association. “The PHCC Insurance, Safety, & Risk Management Committee is very involved in this process. Committee chair David Frame from Bob Frame Plumbing Services Inc. in South Bend, Ind., stresses the importance of training the workforce in safe practices and the use of personal protection equipment as being the key to getting the job done right.

“PHCC provides access to safety information, provides live and on-demand webinars that are accessible to members in an online library, sends out information targeting specific industry risk management issues, and works closely with insurance industry stakeholders such as Corporate Partner Federated Insurance,” White said.

Plumbing pros looking for guidance in personal protection gear and safety practices also can avail themselves of videos and other materials provided by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. OSHA lists occupation-specific advisories on both potential health and safety hazards and protective equipment and practices.


Know the hazards

“OSHA offers a wide selection of training courses and educational programs to help broaden worker and employer knowledge on the recognition, avoidance, and prevention of safety and health hazards in their workplaces. OSHA also offers training and educational materials designed to help businesses train their workers and comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” according to the OSHA website.

Slips and falls are a common hazard for plumbers who working in wet environments on a daily basis. Plumbers also can be exposed to toxic or carcinogenic substances such as: mold, lead, asbestos, solder, adhesives, and solvents. Then there’s the possibility of coming into contact with biohazards in raw sewage from septic tanks, sewage pipes or laying new pipes, or infection from bird or rodent droppings. The trade also means working in proximity to hot pipes, heating equipment, combustible materials, noise, electricity and extreme heat. Plumbers work in tight space, often with poor ventilation, and also can work at heights on ladders and scaffolds.

It’s no secret that some plumbing professionals think the only safety gear they need is a pair of gloves and some sturdy work boots. It’s easy to fall into the habit of viewing the work as routine, dirty and often messy, but not thinking of it as dangerous to life and limb.

What kinds of safety equipment are mandatory for the plumbing professional? It’s a relatively short list and definitely dictated by what kind of work you do. For example, the plumber who does mostly residential fixture repair and drain cleaning may need less protective gear than the guy working on massive commercial boiler systems. The key is to know what the potential hazards are and the best ways to reduce exposure.

We’re not just talking wearable protective equipment. The list also includes products or equipment that can eliminate or reduce the risk of taking those contaminants and biohazards from the job site to the main shop or home. For example, plumbers and plumbing contractors are well aware that there is a potential for illness from exposure to raw sewage and/or the contents of sewer and water piping. Have a system for cleaning all tools and a change of clothes so potential problems don’t get carried home with you, disinfect tools that come into contact with these potential hazards.

It may be stating the obvious, but essentially, you want to protect yourself from head to toe — hard hat to work boots. Here’s how:

Head protection: Hard hats are mandatory in construction areas. Whether you are climbing stairs, riding a lift to higher floors or hauling a load of piping above ground level, if there’s a chance of falling building materials, don a hard hat. It’s not a bad idea when climbing under a house, into an attic or into any confined space where there’s a chance your head could meet a solid object with bad results.

Eye protection: Eye safety is a big issue. Experts say you need to wear safety glasses anytime you are doing anything that could potentially damage your eyes. You’ll find that many chemicals come with advice not to use them without the appropriate eye protection. Are you snaking a drain, working under a sink, replacing a pipe, soldering, using a power saw? Your eyes are a sensitive target for flying objects or chemicals. There are several levels of eye protection, so it’s a good idea to have a range of safety glasses on hand.

Hand Protection: Your hands may be exposed to chemicals and other potentially caustic materials while working plumbing projects and to chemicals, heat or flame when doing pipe joining. Choose heat-insulating work gloves and consider wearing latex gloves under leather gloves to protect against biohazards in drain lines.

Lung Protection: Projects that produce dust particles from sawing or sanding call for a disposable face mask. Heavier duty respiratory equipment may be required in environments where the plumber may be exposed to germs and chemicals. Not wearable protection but advisable to have on hand, is detection equipment for carbon monoxide, smoke or gas.

Back and Knee Protection: Because plumbing work often means working in tight spaces, at awkward angles, and/or dealing with heavy equipment or piping, backs and knees can be at risk for extra wear and tear or injury. Some form of back support is a good preventive measure. Sturdy knee pads or ski-proof kneeler can cushion these vulnerable joints. Additional protection for back and knees can come by using step-climbing ladders and hand trucks for carrying equipment, fixtures and materials, easing strain on back and knee joints.

Foot protection: Plumbers work in wet environments, so there’s always a risk of slip-and fall injuries. Choose non-skid soled work boots with protective toes.

Agencies concerned with workplace safety advise keeping safety gear in good condition so it can do it’s intended job: reducing the incidence of illness, injury and death on the job. Let’s be serious here. This is no place to cut corners. The pros suggest investing in the best protection gear you afford, keeping it in good working order, disinfecting gear or discarding it after exposure to chemicals and toxins, and stowing to for easy access. It’s also a good idea to have a well-stocked first aid kit on hand if injuries do occur and encourage every employee to get training in first aid and CPR.


Make sure it works

When was the last time you inspected your gear? Check the work truck for the presence of safety equipment and its condition — worn-out or non-working equipment isn’t of much use on the job. When new equipment is required, don’t even think of taking the cheap way out. Invest in top-of the-line equipment. That’s an investment in your own health and safety and that of employees or co-workers. Experts also advise keeping gear in top working order.

Choosing the right tools for the job also matters, such as those equipped for ground fault circuit interrupters when working in wet environments to reduce the risk of shock. Working with tools that aren’t right for the job or that haven’t been maintained also is bad practice.

Along with that, do regular on-site checks of how work is accomplished. You might spot any lapse in safe working habits and the need for a training session or refresher course. Whether you are a solo operator, small crew or sizeable operation, consider having an outside safety professional check out how you work and make any reparative suggestions.

A little prevention goes a long way. Safety experts note that being thoroughly trained in the proper use of tools and equipment can prevent casualties in the workplace. That mean more than just a quick demonstration; new tools should be tried out in a controlled environment after reading any manufacturers’ operating instruction caveats. “I’ve been doing this for years” is no guarantee that you can anticipate every possible job site.

A final warning that shouldn’t be necessary for the plumbing professional: Use tools and equipment only for the purposes they are intended. The right equipment will make the job simpler and more straightforward. The wrong tool for the job can lead to burns, electric shock, strains, sprains, pulled muscles, and other injuries—no laughing matter.

Let’s be careful out there. 


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