Lingering Threat

Protect yourself against harmful pathogens that can survive for long periods in your work environment.

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A couple of interesting articles in the newsletter of the Washington On-Site Sewage Association do a good job explaining the risks lurking in the material you work with every day. Executive Director John Thomas also points out that it’s possible that you could be bringing those pathogens home with you – all the more reason to properly wear and use PPE.

“Research has shown that workers with routine sewage exposures exhibit respiratory dysfunction, fatigue and headache, infection, and increased incidences of cancer,” he writes in the summer 2013 issue of the Pipeline newsletter (along with a list of source materials).

As he points out in the winter issue, roundworm eggs can survive in soil for up to seven years. “Beyond exposure to virus, consider some of the other critters that are in your daily work schedule, riding around with you in the cab, on your clothes, your shoes or boots, your hands.”

Pathogens can survive for some time in soil, causing such diseases as typhoid fever and cholera, and other health problems:

  • Entamoeba histolytica (parasite) – six to eight days
  • Coliforms (bacteria) – 38-plus days
  • Salmonella (bacteria) – one to 120 days
  • Enteroviruses (virus) – eight-plus days
  • Dangerous pathogens can obviously live for a long time in sewage – and in surface waters you walk around in while servicing a failed system:
  • Salmonella - up to two months
  • Shigella (dysentery) – one month to two years
  • Entamoeba histolytica – one month
  • Cholera – five to 16 days
  • Hepatitis A - more than a year
  • Cryptosporidium – 18 months

Using a $138,000 grant from the Washington Department of Labor & Industries, WOSSA has been conducting research on hazard assessment, mitigation and training for workers exposed to residential sewage. “Presently, a disparity exists between definitive standards of exposure and workplace orientation and education with adequate tools to accurately identify these exposures and educational resources to prevent occupational illness in the workplace,” Thomas writes.

The study has been looking into identifying not only the actual exposure of workers handling raw sewage, but also subsequent exposure to others through contaminated materials and clothing, and tracking pathogens into offices, shops and vehicles.

The study will eventually result in a new WOSSA training program on pathogen protection that Thomas says is “currently unavailable to small business practitioners in the decentralized wastewater industry.” The curriculum, once developed, will be available to those in other states to help raise awareness and understanding of pathogen exposure so that those in the field can have better safety awareness and modify both their attitudes and workplace practices.

Thomas also reprints an email from OSHA responding to questions about its regulations dealing with raw sewage. While it is not a regulated waste stream, employers still have a legal responsibility under other OSHA regulations. “We note,” says an OSHA spokesperson, “that employers are required to evaluate their workplaces and, based on the evaluation, institute measures to prevent exposure to recognized hazards. Exposure to raw sewage poses a number of health hazards since raw sewage is associated with a wide range of infectious agents.”

It’s probably a good idea to keep Thomas’s comments in mind the next time you sit in your truck and reach into your lunch bag to grab a sandwich – or before you walk into the house after a long day in the field and start giving hugs to the family.


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