Biohazards a Real Threat

Awareness and simple precautions can prevent serious illnesses lurking in wastewater.

Interested in Safety?

Get Safety articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Safety + Get Alerts

When you work with something every day, it’s easy to become a bit lax when it comes to simple precautions to minimize the risk of injury or illness. Working with human waste brings with it several health risks that, while they may be rare, could be severe.

Tetanus, salmonella, viral hepatitis, E. coli, leptospirosis, and parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium are the most common threats from raw sewage, but there are several others. Illnesses resulting from exposure can be life threatening or life altering, such as:

  • Tetanus – Painful muscle contractions, including lockjaw that can make it difficult to open your mouth or swallow. Death is possible through suffocation, but it is treatable, and a vaccine can prevent tetanus. Adults should get a booster every 10 years or after a bad cut or burn.
  • Salmonella – Diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps. Symptoms can be severe and cause hospitalization. The infection may spread to the blood stream and through the rest of the body, which can cause death. It can also lead to chronic arthritis.
  • Viral hepatitis (mainly B and C) – Swelling of the liver that can cause many complications, including liver scarring and cirrhosis. Viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason for the need for liver transplants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • E. coli – Diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia and other symptoms and illnesses. It is a common cause of food poisoning. It can lead to life-threatening kidney failure.
  • Leptospirosis – Kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress and death. Symptoms can be mistaken for other diseases, and some people have no symptoms.
  • Giardia and Crypto – Intestinal illness including diarrhea, nausea and abdominal cramps. The worst epidemic of cryptosporidium cases in the U.S. happened in Wisconsin in 1993, resulting in 400,000 illnesses and 60 deaths.

It doesn’t take much to be exposed when working with raw sewage, but it likewise doesn’t take much to prevent that exposure. The Center for Construction Research and Training warns that workers should assume that contamination is present anytime they are working near wastewater and use personal protective equipment to prevent exposure. Among its guidelines:

  • Use liquid-proof gloves, boots and eye/face protection when in direct contact with raw sewage. Face shields should be used where splashing is anticipated. Skin protection is especially important if skin is chapped, burned, cut or otherwise damaged. Puncture-resistant gloves should be used when working with items that may cause cuts.
  • Wash reusable clothing commercially at high temperatures (160º F) to ensure that all organisms are destroyed. Contaminated clothing and PPE should be kept away from eating and food storage areas.
  • Wash hands and face regularly with soap and water, especially before eating, smoking and drinking.
  • Keep hands out of nose, mouth, eyes and ears.
  • Keep fingernails short.
  • Shower daily.
  • Store and consume food only in designated areas.
  • Clean, treat and report any cuts or punctures immediately. Consider all wounds as potentially infected.

While OSHA doesn’t consider raw sewage as a regulated waste product, it does require employers to protect workers from hazards and infectious material, such as with proper personal protective equipment and by communicating with workers about workplace hazards.

Simple steps can protect you from illness and injury; the most important part always being aware when it comes to safety on the job.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.