Awareness of occupational exposure and proper prevention is key to staying healthy on the job.

To be a plumber, you need to leave any squeamish tendencies at the door. How else could you willingly and gladly reach down into waste pipe, traps and drains?

But while plumbers are far from germ-a-phobes - and their tough personae definitely earns our respect as they protect the health of the nation - most times they’re not so diligent about protecting their own health while on the job, especially in terms of exposure to infectious diseases.

For drain-cleaning plumbers, as well as those servicing medical, dental or laboratory facilities, coming into contact with infectious material is a real risk.

“Plumbers - we’re tough. We work when injured, cut up with abrasions. We’re taught to suck it up,” says Ron Murray, an agent with Oregon UA Plumbers Local 290. Murray has been a strong advocate for broadening safety courses for apprentices with an added emphasis on disease exposure. But he has found the available resources on the topic sorely lacking - and he’s found far too many plumbing employers clueless about their role in protecting employees.

Changing Times

Up until recently in our modern world, we lived a trusting and ignorance-is-bliss existence. “But devastating events, such as Katrina and 9/11, showed us how quickly a civilized and industrialized area can revert to third-world or developing-country status with respect to adequate piped water supply and sanitation,” Murray says. “Society awareness is changing and evolving.”

Murray points out that the public/social consciousness of infectious diseases and viral exposure has increased. Staph infections, such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), have been front-page news of USA Today and media outlets. Focus on global flu epidemics and bloodborne pathogens, such as HIV and Hepatitis B (and its nastier, vaccination-less cousin Hepatitis C), also have increased societal awareness to exposure and prevention. However, the construction industry - and in Murray’s experience, plumbers - have not kept pace with other industries in terms of protection while on the job.

When Murray spoke at the World Plumbing Council conference in China two years ago, he publicized a worldwide dilemma of plumbers confronting the possibility of exposure to infectious materials while servicing and maintaining medical facilities without the use of proper preventative procedures.

He cited the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation 29 CFR 1910.1030 (“Occupational Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens”), in which “workers who are engaged in maintenance operations and who have occupational exposure [to bloodborne pathogens] are covered under the standard.”

Bloodborne pathogens are microorganisms that can cause disease when transferred from an infected individual to another individual through blood or certain other body fluids.

Occupational exposure is defined by OSHA as “reasonably anticipated skin, eye mucous, membrane or parenteral contact with blood or other potentially infectious materials that may result from the performance of an employee’s duties.”

“While trades such as plumbers, pipefitters and others who may at times be engaged in maintenance activities are not generally considered to have occupational exposure as defined by the standard, it is the employer’s responsibility to determine which job classifications or specific tasks and procedures may place employees at risk,” wrote Patricia K. Clark, director directorate of compliance programs in a letter to the National Constructors Association in 1992 after the CFR ruling.

For Murray, any plumber working on pipes and utilities in hospitals, dental offices, research labs and/or other medical facilities is at risk. “The law is old, but the knowledge is new.”

Proper Protection

What specifically does OSHA require of employers in terms of pathogen exposure? Proper protective equipment and immunizations when applicable.

As late as November 2007, OSHA delivered a final rule on employer-paid personal protective equipment (PPE): “All PPE, with a few exceptions, will be provided at no cost to the employee,” OSHA states. PPE must be available in appropriate sizes, should be properly used, cleaned and laundered, and must be repaired or replaced as needed.

The department anticipates this rule will have substantial safety benefits, and could result in more than 21,000 fewer occupational injuries per year. “Employees exposed to safety and health hazards may need to wear personal protective equipment to be protected from injury, illness and death caused by exposure to those hazards,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Edwin G. Foulke Jr. in the ruling’s announcement.

However, even though the OSHA standard calls for employer-paid PPE, it is no guarantee technicians will wear it while on the job. In a recent survey of safety professionals, it was found that noncompliance with PPE protocols continues to be an issue in the workplace. About 87 percent of respondents said they had observed workers failing to wear PPE when they should have been*.

The main “why,” the study found, was “uncomfortable” PPE (62 percent). An excuse close behind was “workers thinking PPE was not necessary for the task.”

“Members of the UA are stressing the need to be professional, and professionals don’t act that way,” Murray says, about the failure of plumbers to wear proper eye and hand protection while opening and servicing the pipes of facilities included under occupational exposure.

Going one step further on the road to prevention, besides PPE the OSHA standard covering bloodborne pathogens also requires employers to offer the three-injection Hepatitis B vaccination series free to all employees who are exposed to blood or other potentially infectious materials as part of their job duties. They should be made available - again at no cost to the employee - within 10 days of initial assignment or anticipated contact with bloodborne pathogens.

“The law is specific,” Murray says. “And it’s not just a good federal standard; it’s good common sense.” Understanding the OSHA CFR is also a good start for employers to develop and implement a plan and procedure addressing methods of decontamination after occupational exposure.

“Of course it will change the way the plumber does things. But we have to change,” Murray recommends.

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* Survey of attendees at the 2007 National Safety Council Congress, conducted by Kimberly-Clark Professional.

[sidebar]Utility gloves may be decontaminated if they are not compromised. They should be replaced when they show signs of cracking, peeling, tearing, puncturing or deteriorating. If employees are allergic to standard gloves, the employer must provide hypoallergenic gloves or similar alternatives. - OSHA

GUIDELINES AND TIPS for reducing risk of exposure while drain cleaning

  • Always wear safety glasses when operating drain cleaning equipment to protect your eyes from debris that may spray from the drain.
  • Never touch a cable with your bare hands, and wash your hands and solid surfaces after completing a job.
  • Healthcare workers use a solution of one part chlorine bleach to 20 parts water when they get blood on clothing. The cable can be cleaned the same way.
  • Only wear heavy-duty leather gloves when operating the drain cleaning equipment (cloth, rubber or latex can get caught in the coils). Only use medical latex gloves as an insert inside the leather gloves.
    Tips courtesy of Marty Silverman, General Pipe Cleaners.