Low Risk of Coronavirus for Wastewater Workers

WEF discusses the results of their study on the risks of coronavirus in the wastewaster industry

By Andrew Sanderson

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly had a ripple of effects across our society, including the infrastructure sector is. The top priority of the Water Environment Federation (WEF) is always to ensure the safety and health of the people operating our wastewater infrastructure, who are essential workers in communities across the country.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic there were many questions and concerns about how a person could contract COVID-19 and what circumstances were high-risk. The water sector was particularly worried about wastewater workers exposed to untreated sewage.

This prompted the Water Environment Federation to conduct a critical review of pathways of potential exposure to this virus associated with the collection and treatment of wastewater. In April 2020, WEF convened a blue ribbon panel of experts in water operations, science, health, and safety to conduct this critical review.

The blue ribbon panel concluded that occupational risk of infection is low, standard wastewater treatment processes inactivate the virus, and additional research should be conducted to further increase understanding of hazards and protections for personnel.

The blue ribbon panel concluded that occupational risk of infection is low, standard wastewater treatment processes inactivate the virus, and additional research should be conducted to further increase understanding of hazards and protections for personnel.”

The panel also updated the guidelines for protection of wastewater personnel from potential pathways of exposure to biological hazards, including coronavirus. The report was provided to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

While new information continues to emerge on coronavirus, the work of the blue ribbon panel should serve to reassure that the health of wastewater workers can be protected by following the appropriate safety protocols and being strict about the use of personal protective equipment.

The panel found that best practices for protecting the health of workers exposed to wastewater should be followed, such as engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) normally required for tasks when handling untreated wastewater. At locations where wastewater or sludge is sprayed, the possibility of inhaling potentially infectious agents will increase and use of surgical masks, or their equivalent, and goggles may help to minimize contact.

The panel also found that because of direct high exposure to untreated wastewater, collections system workers have greater risks of infection from pathogens. Furthermore, wastewater personnel engaged in biosolids handling, laboratory analytics, septic haulers, landfill leachate handlers, industrial pretreatment personnel, and persons handling ambient water quality sampling all have potential exposure.

Notably, risks of coronavirus are considered low because the virus has not yet been detected in wastewater in its infectious form.

The blue-ribbon panel recommended conducting epidemiological studies of the incidence of infectious diseases among wastewater workers, with further analyses of PPE use and effectiveness. It also recommended a study to evaluate respiratory exposure for tasks performed by workers in wastewater collection and treatment. This is particularly relevant to aerosolization of wastewater whereby exposure to potentially infectious agents via aerosols may be possible.

This important and timely work of the panel provides necessary and appropriate guidance to our wastewater industry on protecting against COVID-19 infection. More importantly, it provides a powerful reminder to us all that vigilance to protection from all potential hazards exposure when working in a wastewater environment is crucial.

Dr. Andrew Sanderson is the chief medical officer for the Water Environment Federation. For more information visit https://www.wef.org/blue-ribbon-panel/

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