WEF Blue-Ribbon Panel Finds Coronavirus Risks Low for Wastewater Workers

Announcements, Emerging Issues

A panel of wastewater and public health experts has determined that occupational risk of COVID-19 infection for wastewater workers is low. The panel also found that standard wastewater treatment processes inactivate the virus and additional research should be conducted to further increase understanding of hazards and protections for personnel.

WEF convened this blue-ribbon panel of 16 wastewater-sector experts beginning in April. The panel worked to re-examine approaches to managing biological hazards and review the safety precautions necessary to protect workers and those around them during the coronavirus pandemic.

The panel today released its findings in a 114-page document, titled Protecting Wastewater Professionals From COVID-19 and Other Biological Hazards. The findings include a critical review of existing sector guidance on biohazard exposure, an assessment of whether COVID-19 prompts new guidance for biohazard safety, and recommendations for further research.

“The top priority of WEF is always to ensure the safety and health of our frontline people, who are essential workers in communities across the country,” said WEF President Jackie Jarrell. “We are grateful to the blue-ribbon panel for ensuring that information on hazards and safety are based on the latest evidence and best science.”

Virus Viability
Although the virus’ RNA has been detected in untreated wastewater, no reports thus far have shown viable or infectious forms of the virus in wastewater. The virus that causes COVID-19 requires living host cells to reproduce.

Given the characteristics of the virus that cause COVID-19, the panelists write, it is unlikely that this virus would be any more infectious than other types of viruses typical to the wastewater environment.

The panel notes, however, that although the infectious form of the virus that causes COVID-19 has not yet been detected in wastewater, wastewater sludge, or biosolids, its presence cannot be ruled out without further research.

Worker Safety
Standard treatment and disinfection procedures in use at water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) have proven effective at inactivating the virus. Employing proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygienic practices can sufficiently protect workers from virus exposure, according to the findings.

WEF provides guidance for managing many forms of biological hazards in the 2012 publication, Manual of Practice (MOP) 1: Safety, Health, and Security in Wastewater Systems. Chapter 8 of this manual includes information on preventing and treating infections, identifying at-risk workers, and more. The panel revisited this guidance to determine whether the virus that causes COVID-19 necessitates additional recommendations; the panel found no cause for changes beyond further emphasizing the importance of proper PPE to protect workers’ respiratory pathways, such as N95 respirators, surgical masks, and goggles.

However, report authors describe that because COVID-19 mainly spreads through respiratory droplets, sites and duties that involve spraying wastewater or biosolids as an aerosol could present increased inhalation risks. Additionally, collection system workers, biosolids handlers, laboratory analysts, industrial pretreatment personnel, and other hands-on jobs may also face increased exposure.

The panel encourages wastewater organizations to conduct new Job Hazard Analyses according to U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration standards — and revisit existing ones — to better identify respiration-related risks for their specific job site.

More Research Needed
Existing research provides an incomplete understanding of how transitioning between solid and liquid phases during the wastewater treatment process can affect any virus transmission, a knowledge gap exacerbated by coronavirus. Report authors also describe uncertainty surrounding whether the virus that causes COVID-19 can associate with particulate matter in wastewater, and if so, whether this association can protect the virus from disinfectants and pass it into receiving waters.

To help fill these gaps, panelists call for two specific research efforts:

  • an epidemiological study of infectious disease incidence among wastewater and collection system workers, intended to establish a baseline level of PPE use for COVID-19; and
  • a study to characterize respiratory exposure for typical tasks performed by workers in WRRFs and collection systems, aimed at better identifying aerosolization effects and other understudied disease vectors.

Stronger Partnership
Whether in response to a new type of environmental contaminant or a new virus, it is critical for the wastewater sector to continually adapt its best practices to manage emerging threats as they appear. Arthur Umble, chair of the panel and Global Wastewater Practice Lead for Stantec Consulting (Denver) said the panel’s work “provides a powerful reminder” that world events necessitate an even stronger commitment to worker health and safety at water resource recovery facilities.

“This important and timely work of this highly credible blue-ribbon panel provides necessary and appropriate guidance to our wastewater industry on protecting against COVID-19 infection,” Umble said.

WEF’s decision to convene a panel of experts on operator health and safety reflects a renewed emphasis on incorporating the most recent health and safety guidance into its products and programs. The organization is poised to continue its leadership at the intersection of wastewater treatment and public health.

In June, WEF hired Dr. Andrew Sanderson as the organization’s first Chief Medical Officer. Sanderson, a practicing gastroenterologist and professor at Howard University (Washington, D.C.), will work with WEF and other water organizations to provide input to the global medical and public health community, ensuring that future health and safety guidelines are consistent, protective of workers, and inclusive of the wastewater sector’s specialized knowledge.

“While new information continues to emerge on COVID-19, the important work of the WEF blue-ribbon panel should serve to reassure wastewater workers that they can protect their health by following the appropriate safety protocols and being strict about the use of personal protective equipment,” Sanderson said.