Learning More About Wastewater and Coronavirus

Wastewater News

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Several CWEA members have asked about coronavirus and working around wastewater.

According to WEF, the scientific community has found no evidence yet of viable COVID-19 virus in wastewater systems. While there is still a lot we don’t know, it appears that contracting COVID-19 through exposure to wastewater is unlikely.

We talked with three California experts about safety, collection systems and State regulations.

David Patzer is managing partner of DKF Solutions Group. DKF advises many public agencies, including the California Sanitation Risk Management Authority (CSRMA) to provide safety information for their members. CSRMA is promulgating the latest coronavirus information from reputable organizations such as WHO, CDC, EPA, and OSHA.

Andy Morrison, is the principal at AMConsulting and retired collection system manager for Union Sanitary District.

James Fischer is a Water Resource Control Engineer with the State Water Board, Office of Enforcement.

First some terminology: the “coronavirus” describes the virus itself and COVID-19 stands for “Coronavirus Disease 2019”.  That is the name researchers have given the human illness caused by the virus. There have been several different coronaviruses over the years, this version is identified as SARS-CoV-2.

So the coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2 causes the diseas COVID-19.

What do we know about coronavirus and working around raw sewage?

David Patzer: There’s not a lot of information but at least the CDC has on their website a section on water transmission and COVID-19 and it’s consistent with what other organizations are saying: the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 through sewage systems is thought to be low.

Although transmission of COVID through sewage may be possible, there’s no evidence to date this has occurred.

The CDC data and guidance echoes World Health Organization (WHO) guidance. Looking at epidemiological data (studies of who gets sick) from countries like China and Italy, is one group getting this more frequently than others? Nothing I’ve seen indicates sewer workers are contracting COVID at a higher rate than anybody else. That’s the basis as for why WHO can make that statement.

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) from March 20th, states there is no evidence the coronavirus survives the disinfection process for drinking water and wastewater. Additionally, they say no additional coronavirus-specific protections are recommended for employees, other than what you normally wear for tasks when handling untreated wastewater.

Basically, WEF is saying you need to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes protective outerwear, gloves, boots, and for activities that are generating aerosols, goggles or face mask shields. That’s what the WEF is saying.

The EPA has an FAQ: ‘Can I get COVID-19 from wastewater?’ They’re reflecting WHO’s position. There is no evidence to date COVID-19 has been transmitted via sewage systems with or without wastewater treatment.

What we’re telling folks is to follow proper hygiene practices that you normally follow to protect yourself from pathogens that have always been present in untreated and partially treated wastewater.

From phone calls I’ve had, there’s concern about activities for sewer collections that generate aerosols. Obviously, waterborne pathogens are always present during those activities. You want to conduct your activities in a manner that limits the amount of aerosols generated.

Andy, these aerosols David mentions, what are you recommending to agencies, what’s the right thing for jetting and sewer crews to do?

Andy Morrison: It’s the same as it’s always been, and I echo what David said. Where it normally comes from is when you’re hydro jetting with some of these newer tier two nozzles. It creates a lot of mist, and generally that’s because your pressure is really high, you’re trying to do a good job cleaning. But it’s not a new hazard, so it’s the same response: use a dust/mist mask or a face shield, or a combination of both and turn down the pressure when you’re close to the manhole.

There are devices that can also be used to reduce mist. Here’s one from WECO, everybody who sells sewer equipment sells these things. They’re called splash covers. If you need to use high pressure, these will block out a lot of the spray and mist. There are some other concerns with using them, like you can’t really see what you’re doing, but if somebody has to clean a sewer line and use high pressure they can use this device.

Additionally, if you use the vacuum and set the vacuum above the flow channel with as high as possible vacuum, you can catch a lot of mist before it comes up by creating a vacuum right there at the inlet while cleaning.

When I say it’s not a new concern, sewers are full of all kinds of pathogens, viruses, bacteria and parasites. When you’re cleaning, you stir that stuff up and turn it into a mist, so you don’t want to be breathing it.

The idea of stopping all cleaning creates another hazard. Lines we know have problems will plug up.

When we have raw sewage going down the street or into somebody’s home or into the environment, we have the hazards we’ve been trying to prevent since sewers were created, which is the spread of disease, all diseases.

Regarding using high pressure spray wands to clean equipment and sidewalks, those have the same kind of hazards as always. You should be wearing PPE, a face shield, and a dust/mist mask to prevent you from breathing aerosols.

Would you suggest sewer crews stop cleaning lines?

Andy: I wouldn’t stop cleaning the known problem lines or hotspots or selective cleaning. I would just remind staff to turn down the pressure, to only what is needed, wear the dust/mist mask and use a face shield if needed.

Everything that people flush down their toilet is in sewage. Some survive longer than others, but obviously, hepatitis, HIV are in there. Anybody who’s got the flu, influenza is going to be in there. How long it survives is something I can’t speak to, but you certainly want to take precautions working around raw sewage. Like David says, these are not a new concern. It’s an age-old concern.

I think the bigger concern is probably two people in a truck, you know? They’re less than six feet apart. Normally, you send out two people to operate this equipment, and they’re both in the cab sharing the air space. One person starts coughing, and the coworker is breathing that air.

It’s a much bigger area of concern to me than cleaning sewer lines.

You might consider sending out the second person in a pickup, and when they’re operating the equipment, maintain some distance, but inside the truck would be an area of concern.

How can workers reduce the chances of exposure?

David: One of the exposure reduction practices I know many cities and sewer districts are considering or implementing is creating dedicated work teams. If I work with Joe, Joe is the only person I work with. That way if Joe or I get sick, we haven’t exposed other crews.

Back at the yard, practice social distancing as well as keeping common areas and commonly touched items clean.

Additionally, when you’re working, there’s a lot you can do to minimize exposure. It’s the same practices that should always be followed. Commonly touched items will get contaminated – door handles, controls, computers, and the equipment you touch. Those can get whatever pathogens are in normal untreated wastewater.

Eye infections are one of the more common injuries we see across all the sectors DKF serves. It underscores the importance of what Andy said in terms of face masks and proper hygiene. Be aware of dirty hands; avoid touching your face, smoking, chewing tobacco; unscrewing a water bottle and grabbing it by the mouth; anything that’s going to provide a path for what’s on your hands to get into your body.

Before you get into the cab, take off your gloves, disinfect your hands. At the end of the day, make sure you disinfect everything inside the cab you touched so the next day when you come back out, you start clean.

View CWEA’s round-up of Coronavirus (COVID-19) worker safety information here >

For smaller agencies and small city wastewater crews, what advice do you have for  pandemic emergency planning? 

David: In my opinion, step one is talking to neighboring cities and ask what are they doing.

Step two, I think, is look for a framework that helps you plan ahead. OSHA created a COVID-19 virus exposure control plan framework. There’s a lot of very practical advice in there from an employee safety perspective.

Should agencies prepare for reduced staffing levels?

David: As a leader, ask yourself what are all the things a collections department does? What is essential? What task can you say we’re not doing this during the emergency? Then identify how you’re going to deal with staffing.

The City of Modesto drafted a pandemic emergency plan recently, and something I really liked was identifying tasks they would do at 100% staffing, and what they would do at 75, 50% and 25%.

The other thing to start thinking about is if we don’t have enough crew members, who are we going to draw on? Consider looking at your mutual aid agreements and neighboring organizations.

It underscores the importance of written standard operating procedures (SOPs) for workers.

Employees who don’t normally perform a particular task will be asked to perform that task, and having SOPs in place provides step-by-step guide on how they can do it safely and correctly.

During the SARS outbreak several years ago, some of the emergency planning included who on your staff you cannot live without. This is going to be a consideration for very small agencies. Identify work teams and develop procedures for sheltering in place on site.

You could be at work for a couple of weeks, then relieved, and another crew would come in. The idea behind the two weeks is that’s the average incubation period right now. That’s sort of a last-ditch effort to maintain operational functionality.

Andy: If you’re going to do on-site sheltering in place, then you need to provide food and some places to sleep, places to clean-up, some facilities. You’re probably going to need to have short written policies to guide those team members.

People are also going to be concerned about their loved ones, so having the ability to FaceTime home. If things get more serious, consider offering employees an assistance program to bring in counseling as people are facing more stress.

James, are there any updates and data you are gathering at the State Water Board, Office of Enforcement?

James Fischer: We’ve started developing an assistance effort for the regional boards.  This process is similar to what we did during the northern California wildfires, collecting data from some of the potentially impacted utilities to try to get a better sense of what’s happening; what their challenges are; and if they have any “best practices” of their own related to changing operations, staffing, etc. they’d be willing to share with us and others.

We’ve received some questions about permit compliance during COVID-19 and just released an announcement on the Water Boards website at Waterboards.ca.gov which includes information about “essential functions and compliance.”

Please visit “ANNOUNCEMENTS” at WATERBOARDS.CA.GOV to get the notice.  All contact information for the water boards is also included in the release.

The message states, in part:

“Please be aware that timely compliance by the regulated community with all Water Board orders and other requirements (including regulations, permits, contractual obligations, primacy delegations, and funding conditions) is generally considered to be an essential function during the COVID-19 response. As a result, the Water Boards consider compliance with board-established orders and other requirements to be within the essential activities, essential governmental functions, or comparable exceptions to shelter-in-place directives provided by local public health officials.”

So, as you can see, if anyone can’t meet or anticipates being unable to comply with any State Water Board or Regional Water Board permits, they need to reach-out ASAP to the contacts listed in the announcement, ahead of time, to explain why they may not be able to comply and what is happening. Communication is the key.

If you have any issues or questions, my email is [email protected].

Again, we would really appreciate hearing from anyone out there willing to share their own “best practices” or changes they’re implementing right now to try to ensure they have adequate operational resources to stay in compliance.

Andy: I’ve suggested to some agencies they keep track of the extra costs or create a project called COVID-19. For instance, some agencies are getting overwhelmed with wipes. They clearly see the difference. Those extra costs and problems may be reimbursable (by FEMA or the State), but it all depends.

David, do you think agencies should start planning for minimum staffing levels?

David: Without a doubt. Something employers need to keep in mind is if you have an employee with a family member who tests positive, if they’ve been exposed, then the self-quarantine recommendations kick in. Additionally, if they have a family member they need to care for, they’re not going to be at work.

Figure out how you are going to keep your employees physically separated from one another to the extent you can and plan for how many employees you need for basic operations.

The time to plan for reduced staffing is not when you come to work and realize half your workforce isn’t showing up today. Plan ahead, look to mutual aid partners or contractors to possibly backfill as well.

What are the topics you have planned for the webinar Thursday March 26th?

David: We’ve divided that up into basically three parts.

  1. We’re going to give some background information about the information about the virus, how it’s spread, and then go into means of protecting yourself.
  2. Then we’re going to go into employee exposure control plans. We’re using the OSHA 3920 as our source material and then throwing in best practices, many of which we’ve talked about today.
  3. Then we’re going to give an example of what your exposure control plan might look like.

Is there any other safety-related items you want to share or any topics we didn’t cover?

David: I would like to emphasize safe work practices need to be followed everyday. Double down on safety and look out for your coworkers.

If you see them reaching to touch their face, call them on it.

You really need to take care of your PPE. You need to inspect it before you use it. When it comes to gloves, you need to change them frequently. You need to be smart about maintaining social distance from others, whether it’s members of the public who are walking up and curious or your coworkers.

Andy: I would not stop having tailgate meetings and briefings. Just do them by group text messages or something. Maybe focus in on acknowledging there’s going to be a certain level of stress and distraction. Don’t let stress and all the stuff going on cause workers to lose track of what they’re doing.  If you need to have face to face meetings, do them outside in the corporation yard, with the 6’ of separation between coworkers”

I would also remind wastewater professionals they may not be a first responder or a nurse, but they’re still very much part of protecting public health.

I like to refer to the collection system operators as guardians of public health because if they’re doing their job right, people flush all this unwanted stuff, and they never see it again.

I would encourage my staff to keep it up. What they are doing is very important.

Any other thoughts?

David: I’d like to add to what Andy said about using technology to continue your training. Our industry, for a variety of barriers, has been slow to embrace remote training. A lot of it has to do with collection employee access to computers. For the next few months at the bare minimum, it’s not business as usual for employee training.

It’s really important the industry look at what others are doing. If you have schoolkids, they’re home, and most of them are getting lessons remotely. The technology is out there. It’s up to the employers to make it more readily accessible for their employees.

You can’t just give up on training.

We know for a fact that regular safety training reduces injuries and illnesses, and we know that professional development benefits not just the individual but their organization as well.

Continuing training to the extent you can using these different remote options, it’s really important.

View CWEA’s round-up of Coronavirus (COVID-19) worker safety information here >