From the inception of our organization, the United Association (UA) has proudly maintained an unwavering commitment to protecting public health and safety. Today, one of the greatest public health challenges we face in the United States and Canada is ensuring safe water quality for our families and communities.
A basic human necessity, water is something we take for granted multiple times a day. Our country has been able to boast of having the safest water in the world for the past several decades. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. We are now facing pervasive, systematic water quality threats unprecedented in scope.
To address these challenges, the UA, under the leadership of General President Mark McManus, has created the Water Quality Program. This is a major initiative that is vital to public safety and designed to help develop critically needed solutions for our emerging water quality crises. Additionally, since water systems constitute a core part of our jurisdiction, this program could create substantial work opportunities for our members.
The Water Quality Program is overseen by Director of Plumbing Services Tom Bigley, who assigned me, International Representative Kurt Steenhoek, to take the lead on this important initiative. Director of Education and Training James Pavesic and Training Specialists Rich Benkowski and Laura Ceja are also providing valuable assistance.
Today, evidence of water quality problems in the U.S. runs deep and wide. One of the first indications of this emerged several years ago in Flint, Mich., where unsafe lead levels were detected throughout the city’s water supply. From the outset, the UA was at the forefront of the response efforts to correct these problems. Local 370 Business Manager Harold Harrington in Flint did an outstanding job organizing volunteers from his own local and sister locals to provide necessary systemwide testing and remediation services.
While Flint was a major tragedy, it turns out it is only the tip of the iceberg. A UA pilot program conducted in the aftermath of Flint surveyed several other cities and found contamination in multiple locations. Follow-up research revealed even more startling results. A comprehensive report issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 2018, which reviewed extensive water quality data from across the country, found that up to 45 million Americans have been relying on public water systems operating in violation of federal safety standards.
This report also showed that our water systems are not only being contaminated by metals, such as lead, but also dangerous bacteria – especially Legionella – and various types of unsafe chemicals. All such contaminants can cause serious illness, and in some cases, even death. Over the past few years, we’ve seen reports emerge from coast to coast showing additional water quality problems. Not surprisingly, a national membership poll commissioned by the UA showed water quality to be a major concern among UA members.
Numerous factors are driving this crisis, including aging infrastructure, outdated safety standards, and new types of water-based pollutants being found in modern society. Another significant finding is that threats can emerge at various points throughout external water supply systems – from original water sources to treatment plants to service lines and at numerous locations within the internal piping systems in our homes and buildings, including water heaters, cooling towers, showers, and other fixtures.
The UA Water Quality Program is focused on finding solutions. One priority is developing better field responses. In practice, the greatest challenge for all building owners is compliance with the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the standards and guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To this end, we have launched an initiative for craft-specific training, guaranteed to equip the craftspeople performing work on water systems with the required knowledge, skills, and protocols needed to comply with these and other applicable industry requirements.
Fortunately, ASSE International, a world-renowned standards developer and certification body, recently created a new standard series for specialty certifications to verify skills needed for this work. The standard series is titled ASSE/IAPMO/ANSI Series 12000, Professional Qualifications Standard for Infection Control Risk Assessment for All Building Systems. Within this series are four standards specifically for Water Quality Program certification: ASSE 12060 Water Quality Program for Employers and Designated Representatives; ASSE 12061 Water Quality Program for Plumbers; ASSE 12062 Water Quality Program for Pipefitters and HVAC Technicians; and ASSE 12063 Water Quality Program for Sprinkler Fitters. These certifications, ASSE 12060 – 12063, cover contractors and three trade classifications – plumbers, pipefitters, and sprinkler fitters – and are a critical component in the careful implementation of Water Management Programs. Our liaison for this program is ASSE Senior Director Scott Hamilton, who did an excellent job in expediting the development of this series while still maintaining effective quality control. Since the launch in 2018, numerous UA ASSE Certified Instructors have been trained by master instructors, including John Sullivan, Local 1, New York, NY; Manny Ferrer, Local 638, New York City and Long Island, NY; and Chuck Berra, Local 268, St. Louis, MO. Many UA locals are ready to train and award ASSE third-party credentials to signatory contractors and members.
These certifications are being introduced to our local training programs for the benefit of our members and signatory contractors, who will now be better equipped to work with engineers and facility management in addressing water quality issues and in teaching the skills to properly install, maintain, remediate, and monitor all components of internal and external water systems.
Current field practices also require adapting and reconfiguring Water Management Programs to address new threats emerging in our water systems, which include Legionella outbreaks and potential risks from the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, UA-trained craftpersons are needed to ensure proper steps are taken when reopening facilities that have been dormant for months to prevent the spread of contaminants through water systems. UA skills are likewise critical for recommissioning mechanical and fire protection systems.
The UA Water Quality Program is also fostering efforts that will involve promoting federal infrastructure funding to ensuring better water quality from the source to the faucet through new state and local legislation. Substantial revisions to our existing plumbing, mechanical, and fire codes to include ASSE Certified technicians and contractors will also be needed. This will allow proper field techniques to be incorporated into new water policies to protect public safety. The UA Water Quality Program is timely and important. This is an arena in which our dedication to skills, training, and safety is more critical than ever, and we are making sure our members and contractors have the correct tools to succeed.
Article by Kurt Steenhoek first appeared in ASSE’s Working Pressure magazine