Editor's note: The following is the first of a two part series on drain and sewer cleaning safety. The text is from Chapter 1 of The Professional Handbook-Drain and Sewer Cleaners, Second Edition. It is reprinted with permission of Spartan Tool's International Institute of Sewer and Pipe Cleaning. The handbook was authored by Ernest L. Weber.
Before a professional drain and sewer cleaner ever makes his first service call, he must be aware of the hazards in his profession in order to help avoid injury or even death on the job. After years of discussion, the overall consensus among professionals is there are seven major hazards in our profession. Please note the word "major." Every potential hazard a technician may encounter on-the-job cannot possibly be listed in any technical book. There are just too many to mention. For example, in this book, I do not speak about safe driving techniques, the proper use and types of ladders or trenching techniques, just to mention a few of the additional concerns. Somewhere, sometime, a drain and sewer cleaner would find a hazard not yet listed; I do want to list, however, those hazards a drain and sewer cleaner is most likely to encounter.
With this fact in mind, let's list the seven major hazards in drain and sewer cleaning so you can put them to memory for those times you are on a service call without a written reminder. Here are those major hazards:
Hazard No. 1 - Electrical Shock-Water and electricity can he a deadly combination. The use of any electrical equipment can cause fatal shock if the equipment is not properly grounded and adequately maintained, or if care is not used by the operator. Electrically safe equipment as well as safe operating and maintenance practices are an absolute necessity.
Hazard No. 2 - Contracting Disease/ Becoming Ill-Beware of waterborne microorganisms and bloodborne pathogens.
To avoid illness or disease a technician must be properly inoculated, wear appropriate safety gear and follow all safety guidelines while performing drain and sewer cleaning to help avoid illness or disease.
Hazard No. 3 - Chemical Drain Openers-Blindness and permanent skin damage are possible if exposed to some chemical drain openers. It is an absolute necessity to be prepared to deal with chemical drain openers on every service call. Appropriate safety gear must be worn and proper safety precautions must be taken while performing drain and sewer cleaning to help avoid injury.
Hazard No. 4 - Rotating cable and attachment under Torque-A finger can be severed, tendons torn or a wrist broken by a rotating cable. Lightweight cloth gloves are never to be worn on the job. Use a heavy duty glove which is not prone to possible snagging or entanglement by the cable or machine components. A rotating cable must be properly controlled when operational and all safety and operating instructions must be followed in order to help avoid injury. Always stay within three feet of the pipe opening with a continuous cable machine unless additional safety precautions are taken. Use a cable safety guide whenever possible.
Hazard No. 5 - Confined Space Entry-Confined spaces may contain hazardous atmospheres or other hazards that can cause severe injury or death. A1ways follow the applicable OSHA Requirements for Confined Space Entry. A sewer manhole is a confined space. So is a septic tank. Never enter a confined space without appropriate safety gear and always follow OSHA standards.
Hazard No. 6 - Heavy Lifting-Sewer and drain cleaning equipment can be heavy. Improper lifting or attempting to lift too much weight may cause permanent injury. Follow all rules of lifting from The National Safety Council.
Hazard No. 7 - High-Pressure Water-All owners of high-pressure water jetting equipment must be concerned with injury caused by high-pressure water. High-pressure water exposure can cause blindness and permanent injury. Proper operational procedures must be followed. Safety gear must be worn and all safety precautions must be taken while operating high-pressure water jetting equipment.
Now that the seven major hazards have been listed, it's time to go into detail about the steps which must be taken to help guard against each hazard.
The first of the seven major hazards in drain and sewer cleaning is electrical shock. The fear of electrical shock should always be a concern when a drain and sewer cleaner operates a machine. Electricity and standing water is a dangerous combination. Too often, drain and sewer cleaners work in this environment and fail to realize the dangers, which exist because they see them so frequently. To help avoid electrical shock a technician must use safe equipment, dress properly, and take the proper safety precautions.
I mentioned that the drain and sewer cleaning machine should be safe. What are the safety features to look for to help insure electrical safety? The first feature to look for on a drain or sewer machine is a Ground Fault Interrupter (GFI). The purpose of a GFI is to help prevent or minimize electrical shock. If the electrical outlet has a ground fault, the GFI is intended to interrupt the electrical circuit and prevent shock. A GFI as an integral part of the machine is the preferred choice. Remember, if you plug into an electrical outlet which is not grounded and you do not have a GFI, electrocution is possible. Some technicians, concerned about electrical safety, will carry an electrical tester to see if the outlet they plug into is properly grounded. These electrical testers are available at many plumbing wholesalers. I suggest all drain and sewer cleaners purchase and use an electrical testing device.
A properly grounded receptacle is extremely important when using a drain or sewer cleaning machine. It helps minimize the risk of shock. Don't assume that all three-hole adapters are properly grounded. Help insure against shock by testing the receptacle before using it.
Ideally, there should only be the electrical cord (with the GFI) between the electrical outlet and the machine. Many manufacturers include a twenty-five foot electrical cord with the GFI on the machine so an extension cord is unnecessary. However, there may be instances when the 25' length cord is insufficient. In those cases, an extension cord may be necessary. Care must be taken when choosing an extension cord. The extension cord must be heavy duty rated to carry the electrical load safely and it needs to have tightly sealed connections to help keep water out of the electrical connections. A high-quality outdoor extension cord with the proper rating to carry the load safely is neces-
sary. Look for an extension cord with an in line GFI whenever possible. Please remember that shock is possible through an extension cord not equipped with a GFI.
The next item to consider when looking for a drain and sewer cleaning machine is the type of footpedal on the machine. There are three types of footpedals available on drain and sewer machines. There is the air footpedal, the sealed electrical footpedal and the nonsealed electrical footpedal. The air footpedal consists of an air bulb and rubber hose. There is no electricity in either of these two components. The air footpedal may be used in a wet environment without fear of being shocked Through the footpedal. When the air footpedal is depressed, air pressure is transmitted through the air hose and trips an electrical switch on the back of the drain or sewer cleaning machine activating the electric motor allowing the cable to rotate. The electrical switch is located high on the machine so it is away from any standing water which may be in the area. Remember that there should be a separate electrical cord, with a GFI, running from the machine to a properly grounded electrical outlet. If a technician gets shocked by the machine, it is normally through the electrical cord. This is why a properly grounded receptacle and the GFI are so important to electrical safety in drain and sewer cleaning.
A second type of footpedal available in today's marketplace is a sealed electrical footpedal. Unlike the air footpedal, there is electricity passing through the scaled electrical footpedal. The risk of electrocution through a sealed electrical footpedal is increased if there is not a GFI on the cord. If the integrity of the footpedal is compromised, electrical shock is possible. If the electrical cord is cut or damaged, electrical shock is possible. The sealed electrical footpedal is not as safe as the air footpedal.
The third type of footpedal, and the one offering the least amount of protection against shock, is the nonsealed electrical footpedal. This footpedal must be kept away from water to help avoid electrical shock. There are still many drain and sewer cleaners who use this type of footpedal. You may recognize them because whenever there is standing water around a sewer or floor drain, the technician may bring in a pallet or, sometimes, a plastic box on
which to set his nonsealed electrical footpedal. He does it because he knows about the dangers of electrical shock when water and electricity come in contact with one another. Unfortunately, he has failed to buy new equipment or even to convert his old style electrical footpedal to a much safer air footpedal to decrease the risk of shock. Conversion kits are often available. Some nonsealed electrical footpedals are available with Ground Fault Interrupters designed to shut down when a ground fault occurs. An air footpedal is the preferred choice, however.
Sewer and drain cleaning equipment should always be properly maintained. Some technicians, however, fail to maintain their equipment in original working order. I know of technicians who have had electrical footpedals wear out. Instead of replacing the footpedal or the switch in the footpedal, the technician bypasses the footpedal. A danger now exists because the footpedal gives the technician direct control over the operation of the machine. Let me explain. When the footpedal is depressed, the cable rotates. When the footpedal is released, the cable rotation stops. The rotation of the cable develops torque which, in turn, cuts the obstruction in the pipe loose and allows it to be removed.
Once the footpedal is removed and bypassed, the technician has given up control of the operation of the machine. What causes the cable to rotate when the footpedal has been removed? On drain and sewer cleaning machines, it is the electrical switch. An electrical switch should have three positions. The "forward" position is used to rotate the cable in the clockwise position when viewed from behind the machine. The "neutral" position is used when the machine is not to be operated. The "reverse" position is to be used to remove the cable when the cable is caught in a difficult obstruction and cannot be removed in any other manner. Without a footpedal, the only way to rotate the cable is by putting the electrical switch in the "forward" or "reverse" position. Conversely, the only way to stop the rotation of the cable on a machine without a footpedal is to put the switch in the "neutral" position or to unplug the electrical cord from the electrical receptacle. An unsafe condition exists when the technician is not in a position to physically reach over and turn the switch to the "neutral" position or to unplug the electrical cord. In those instances, the cable will continue to rotate and can cause injury or even death. Can't the technician always reach the switch to place it in the "neutral" position or unplug it? The answer is no! Suppose the technician doesn't know any better and is wearing lightweight cloth gloves and gets his hands caught in the rotating cable? Suppose the technician has long hair and gets it caught in the rotating cable? In both cases the technician may not be able to reach the switch and may not be able to unplug the machine. Serious consequences may result when a technician alters the original machine design.
The abuse of the electrical cord is also a major concern for the technician. Abuse of the electrical cord on a drain and sewer cleaning machine may occur if the technician moves or lifts the machine by the cord. If the cord is yanked and the electrical plug is pulled from the wall, damage may occur. An electrical plug needs to be removed at
the outlet to prevent damage to the cord and the plug. To avoid damage, the electrical cord also needs to be kept away from heat, oil, chemicals and sharp objects.
I mentioned earlier about altering the original machine design and the danger involved. I want to mention now the risks involved in converting a machine with the safe air footpedal to an electrical footpedal. It happens too often in our profession. Why would anyone make such a conversion and endanger his life? This is a good question. If any spouse reads this book and knows their mate has converted a machine back to the electrical footpedal, I strongly encourage a serious discussion about on-the-job safety. The reason some conversions are made is because the air footpedal will leak if the hose or the air bulb becomes damaged. crack or a pin hole will cause the air pressure to be insufficient to engage the machine. Instead of replacing the air hose or air bulb for a modest fee, a drain cleaner may get frustrated because, chances are, his electrical footpedal lasted years without a problem. The technician wants to eradicate the problem. Frustration may set in. When used, the electrical footpedal may electrocute the technician when the conversion is made if it is made without using a GFI. Remember the air footpedal, properly maintained, should last 3-5 years. For a modest fee it can be replaced. Never convert a drain or sewer cleaning machine to the old style electrical footpedal. It isn't worth the risk. Use the air footpedal for safety sake.
While discussing the alteration of the machine, I want to mention something else which also occurs in our profession much too often. The problem is the removal of the third prong on a three prong electrical receptacle. Some technicians actually cut the ground prong off of their machine! Why in the world would anyone make such a move? This is another good question. The answer seems to be convenience. Some electrical receptacles, often in older homes, do not have three slots. They are the old style two-slot outlet. Instead of having the home owner update the receptacle or instead of putting the two prong conversion on the front of the three prong receptacle and following the procedures for proper grounding, the techni-cian may remove the ground prong on the electrical cord of the machine. The risk of electrical shock and death are now increased. I cannot understand how convenience can ever become more important than risking injury or even death. For your safety and for your family never cut off the grounding prong on any electrical plug. Death may result.
Other features available on some drain cleaning machines designed to minimize the chance of electrical shock include rubber covers on electrical switches. These covers help keep water away from the electrical components on the machine. Look for sealed electrical outlet boxes for the same reason. A motor shroud or sealed motor is ideal if the machine is used outdoors or in areas where moisture is a problem. Remember, the idea is to keep electricity and water from coming in contact with one another.
Before I go any further, I want to discuss proper dress for the service technician. Proper dress always includes proper fitting coveralls; safety goggles (or face shield); heavy duty, waterproof sewer cleaning gloves; and hair which is too short to cause problems on the job. When dealing with electricity, the idea is to prevent shock or minimize injury when it occurs. Some technicians wear a heavy duty rubber glove to minimize cable entanglement and electrical shock. Others wear a heavy duty, waterproof sewer cleaning glove or mitt to prevent cable entanglement. If a heavy duty, sewer cleaning glove which isn't waterproof is used, always wear a latex type glove beneath the sewer cleaning glove. The latex type glove will cover any cuts or abrasions. Rubber workboots are also recommended because they act as an insulator to help ground the technician. Metatarsal guards should be used in boots to prevent foot injury from dropped machines or other heavy objects. (Warning: An allergic reaction is possible with a latex glove.)
When making a service call, follow the above guidelines to help minimize the possibility of electrical shock. Without following the guidelines, you run a greater risk of electrocution. Take every precaution available for your safety when cleaning drains or sewers.
In the November issue, contracting disease or becoming ill due to water borne microorganisms and blood borne pathogens in waste water will be covered. For more information about the International Institute of Sewer and Pipe Cleaners' seminar program or to purchase a copy of The Professional Handbook, call 800-435-3866 or visit www.spartantool.com.
"This article was originally posted on ww.reevesjournal.com."