Editor's note: This is the second of a three 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.

The second major hazard of concern to drain and sewer cleaners is Contracting Disease or becoming Ill due to waterborne microorganisms and bloodborne pathogens in the wastewater. Bacteria, virus, parasites and fungi are in the drains and sewers, and the danger of becoming ill due to contact is possible. As a human being concerned about my fellow man, I do not want anyone to become ill on the job due to carelessness or failure to take the steps necessary to help prevent disease or illness. As an employer, it is my responsibility to insure that my employees have adequate protection on the job and are taught the procedures which lower the chances they will contract a job related disease or illness. As a service technician, it is my responsibility to insure I take adequate steps to minimize the likelihood I will become ill while on the job.

One of the most common questions asked of me when I teach or speak about the hazards of drain and sewer cleaning is, "Can I contract HIV, the virus leading to AIDS, from cleaning drains and sewers?" I wish I could say that it is impossible to contract HIV while cleaning drains. Unfortunately, I cannot. There are very few guarantees in life. Based upon studies conducted by the Center for Disease Control, it appears unlikely that HIV will be contracted from cleaning drains or sewers, but I cannot say it is impossible. HIV may or may not be active when it enters the sewer. However, in tests, it has been known to survive up to 12 hours in stable wastewater. Too much is still unknown about the transmission of HIV. As of this writing, I know of no reported cases of HIV from cleaning drains and sewers. HIV is primarily contracted by direct contact from one human being to another through the transference of bodily fluids. Contracting an illness or disease from drain and sewer cleaning is primarily a waterborne transmission. However, there may be bloodborne pathogens in the wastewater. Hospital and health facility maintenance personnel have a real concern with bloodborne pathogens when cleaning drains and sewers. All technicians in our profession should take every safety precaution available to them. I recommend that all technicians know and comply with OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, as applicable.

There are several diseases of concern while cleaning drains and sewers. These diseases include hepatitis, amoebic dysentery, infectious jaundice, tetanus, typhoid fever and paratyphoid fever to name a few. Other disease transmissions are also possible. Handling wastewater and its by-products can result in the technician's contracting many diseases or illnesses if proper procedures are not taken. Hepatitis is the bloodborne pathogen of primary concern to most drain and sewer cleaners. Some hospitals are requiring Hepatitis B inoculations before a technician is allowed to clean drains and sewers. I spoke with one sewer cleaner who cleaned a hospital sewer filled with hypodermic needles. In this instance, many possibilities exist for becoming ill or contracting disease while on the job.

Health concerns in sewer and drain cleaning occur when there is human contact with feces, urine, contaminated water, bloodborne pathogens or even animal waste. You have probably heard of these health concerns at one time or another in the news. Often times, when drinking water has been contaminated, flooding has occurred, or people are exposed to these microorganisms, the illnesses are mentioned. It is also possible to become ill and contract these diseases while cleaning drains and sewers.

Let's examine six of the diseases of primary concern to drain cleaners:

  1. Hepatitis-Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. In drain and sewer cleaning we are concerned primarily with Hepatitis B. The agents which cause Hepatitis B may be in blood, feces, saliva or mucous in the wastewater. Hepatitis A is also a possibility. Contact from the hands to the mouth must be avoided. Cuts and abrasions provide entry points.

  2. Amoebic Dysentery-Amoebic dysentery is an infectious disease producing an inflammation of the colon. A painful passage of bloody mucoid stools takes place. The infection can be acquired by ingesting amoebic cysts on food or in drink contaminated by feces. The most common transmission of the disease for drain and sewer cleaners involves direct contact with unwashed hands.

  3. Infectious Jaundice-Infectious jaundice is a disease which produces headaches, severe muscle aches, chills and fever. Indirect contact with contaminated water or soil may cause infectious jaundice. It may also be contracted by swimming or immersion in contaminated water.

  4. Tetanus-Tetanus is an acute infectious disease characterized by an intermittent tonic spasm of voluntary muscles. Convulsions also result. The spores which cause tetanus can be found in the soil and feces of animals. Lockjaw is a form of tetanus affecting the masseters (jaw muscles). If you clean drains and sewers, you should be especially concerned with tetanus. Check with a physician before cleaning drains and sewers.

  5. Typhoid Fever-Typhoid Fever is a Iymphatic tissue infection characterized by fever and intestinal disorders. It can be acquired by ingesting food or water contaminated by excreta. Check with a physician about inoculation. Typhoid/Paratyphoid shots are available.

  6. Paratyphoid Fever-Paratyphoid Fever is a milder form of Typhoid Fever. It can be acquired by direct or indirect contact between the technician and the wastewater. The symptoms are similar to those of Typhoid Fever; however, the pain and discomfort is usually milder.

Dealing with contaminated wastewater is not a major obstacle if we take our time and use the proper safeguards to guard against becoming ill or contracting disease while on the job. There are eight steps which I recommend be taken to avoid illness or disease while on the job cleaning drains and sewers:

Step No. 1-Be Properly Inoculated. Consult a physician. He is the professional who will give you the best advice and treatment. Some states are considering inoculation for technicians in our industry. Hepatitis B is a common inoculation given to those in our industry these days to guard against this bloodborne pathogen.

Step No. 2-Wear Safety Goggles. If wastewater is thrown from a rotating cable into a technicians eyes, illness is possible. If the hands are contaminated and they touch the eyes, ears or mouth, illness is possible. These openings provide an entry point for microorganisms. Safety goggles are also important for more reasons than preventing disease. Prevention of blindness from flying debris is the most obvious.

Step No. 3-Wear Heavy Duty Waterproof Rubber Gloves or Latex Type Gloves Beneath Suede Type Riveted Sewer Cleaning Gloves. Waterproof gloves help provide a barrier between any cuts or abrasions on the hands and contaminated wastewater. If you use suede type gloves, make sure they are waterproof or you wear lightweight latex type gloves beneath them. (Warning: An allergic reaction is possible with latex gloves.) It is important to help prevent contaminated wastewater from getting into breaks in the skin.

Step No. 4-Avoid Exposed Skin by Wearing Coveralls. The more barriers between your body and the source of contamination, the better your chances of remaining healthy. Skin is less likely to be cut when covered. Coverage on the arms and hands to help avoid injury is especially important when cleaning drains and sewers.

Step No. 5- Do Not Touch Your Eyes, Ears or Mouth While on a Service Call. Remember, you do not want to provide an opportunity for microorganisms to enter the body. Once the hands come in contact with wastewater, extreme care must be taken. If you put those hands to your eyes, ears or mouth, you have provided a method for microorganisms to enter the body. Illness and disease are possible once this occurs.

Step No. 6-Insure all Cuts and Abrasions are Properly Covered Before Going on a Service Call. A break in the skin is an entry point for microorganisms. Make sure all cuts and abrasions are properly medicated and covered. If cuts or abrasions occur on the job, treat them immediately. Consult a physician to be safe.

Step No. 7-Wash your Hands and Arms After Each Service Call with an Antibacterial Soap. Use hot, soapy water and an antibacterial soap to wash up after every service call. The microorganisms on the hands and arms must be removed to minimize the risk of contracting disease or becoming ill on the job. Remember some microorganisms may live if steps are not taken to remove and destroy them.

Step No. 8-Proper Diet and Exercise. A program of exercise and proper diet is a smart step towards staying healthy. We get plenty of exercise on the job, but that doesn't mean it is the proper type of exercise for all parts of our body. Too many drain and sewer cleaners fail to eat properly and follow a strict exercise routine. There is a price to pay if we don't follow the rules.

Keep in mind that waterborne microorganisms and bloodborne pathogens have basically two ways to enter your body. They enter through either an opening in the body or through a cut or abrasion in the skin. It is your responsibility to insure that you protect your health and take preventive measures against becoming ill or contracting disease while cleaning drains and sewers.

In the December issue, exposure to chemical drain openers and cable machines will be examined. 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.



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