Wastewater Treatment Is a Dangerous Industry

OSHA has levied steep penalties against two more employers in the wastewater industry for on-the-job injuries and fatalities. In February of 2014, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration cited two contractors who had workers on-site at the Canastota Wastewater Treatment Plant in Syracuse, New York. Joy Process Mechanical and Hubbard Construction were held responsible for the death of one worker and the serious burn injuries to another after both men were caught in an explosion inside a methane gas dome.

It might seem that the dangers of doing welding in a confined space that was designed to collect a flammable gas would be evident. Unfortunately, the two contracting companies apparently failed to provide appropriate training or equipment to the men tasked with repairing old pipes inside the dome. For example, workers may not have been provided with a meter to measure the presence of methane or other hazardous gases. The space was not well-ventilated, and there was no retrieval system in place for speedy emergency evacuation. The two contracting firms were issued a total of 10 citations for serious violations and more than $47,000 in fines.

Why Are Injuries Common in This Industry?

Factors such as the nature of the work involved and the environment in which work is carried out combine to create a particularly dangerous workplace. Wastewater workers face many risks including:

  • Tissue damage or toxic effects from working with chemicals
  • Burns to the skin or eyes (arc flash burns) from welding
  • Explosion injuries from pressurized gases that are accidentally ignited
  • Impact, crush, or amputation injuries from heavy machinery such as mixing equipment, sludge rakes, pumps, and mechanical devices
  • Electrocution from high voltage machinery or wiring
  • Suffocation or entrapment in confined spaces
  • Drowning from sudden release of water
  • Engulfment in trenches during excavation
  • Falls from a higher level to a lower level (such as through an open manhole or off a ladder)
  • Slip and fall injuries (very common since there’s water everywhere)
  • Exposure to pathogens from wastewater that splashes onto skin or mucous membranes (there’s also a risk of inhalation from pathogens in aeration tanks)

It’s Hard to Tell What Is in the Waste…

Chemical hazards also abound in wastewater treatment facilities. Harmful chemicals may cause respiratory damage, nerve damage, tissue damage, burns, or other toxic effects. Examples of potentially hazardous materials include:

  • Antimicrobial chemicals in wastewater treatment (such as gaseous chlorine)
  • Chemicals produced as byproducts of decomposition (hydrogen sulfide and methane)
  • Pesticides and other industrial toxins that may accumulate in the system from runoff or illegal dumping

With such a wide number of variables, it’s no surprise that wastewater treatment plants require some of the most complex safety planning of any industry. To ensure your safety program isn’t missing any key features, contact us for a consultation.