Thankfully, we are heading towards the end of a very contagious pandemic. Vaccines are being distributed and administered as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, more than 310,000 American lives have been lost and it will still take several months to get the coronavirus under control. As a society, we still need to protect ourselves and others. Please diligently wash your hands (minimum 20 seconds), socially distance, and wear a mask.
Civilization has survived many pandemics. Looking back over the last 100 years, we have had the 1918 influenza pandemic (Spanish flu 1918-1920), the 1957 influenza pandemic (Asian flu 1957-1958), the seventh cholera pandemic (1961-1975), HIV/AIDS (1981-present), SARS (2002-2004), swine flu (2009-2010), MERS-CoV (2012-present), and finally, COVID-19 (2019-present). Along with all of the pandemics, even more epidemics and outbreaks have occurred throughout the world. History tells us that they will continue in the future and we need to be prepared. Organizations like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and WHO (World Health Organization) play important roles in the detection, isolation, and testing of diseases and protecting society.
During this pandemic, the U.S. government named certain workers as essential. Essential workers continue to perform critical jobs and tasks through all types of adversity. Construction, maintenance, and service of building mechanical systems are considered essential. With the important role that the pipe trades play, it is even more important that the workforce is trained on how to protect themselves, and others within the building, during this pandemic.
Construction and maintenance inevitably take place within healthcare facilities or around individuals with immunocompromised conditions. Although great strides have been made through OSHA training and certification, additional training and certification must take place. COVID-19 has made all of us very aware of how this virus travels and effects individuals. Extra thought and care should be taken when working around individuals with weakened immune systems. One must consider the effects of moving a ceiling tile, cutting into a wall, disconnecting a pipe, or even carrying your tools to and from the job site.
To protect the workforce, we must first understand what we are protecting ourselves from. In the case of today’s essential workforce, it is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The disease is spread by close person-to-person contact. It usually occurs from a cough, sneeze, or when someone exhales. This releases infected droplets that can get into another’s mouth, nose, or lungs. Most of these droplets fall onto nearby surfaces and objects, like desks, tables, or telephones. People could catch COVID-19 by touching contaminated surfaces or objects – and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. According to the CDC, the virus can also survive in human feces. How long it will survive and how contagious it remains is unclear. The Chinese government identified an outbreak in a sanitary drain and vent system in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong outbreak took place in a 30-story high-rise building. The sanitary drain and vent systems were “altered,” which resulted in open vent connections within the building. The building was evacuated after numerous COVID-19 cases were diagnosed. We also know that the disease is airborne and can travel through HVAC systems.
All plumbers and HVAC service technicians working on existing systems are strongly recommended to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including a full face shield worn over safety goggles, impermeable gloves, and protective clothing, because of the potential to come into contact with waste and aerosols that contain the coronavirus when working on sanitary systems, sewers or HVAC systems. Assume that everything inside of those systems is contagious.
Follow all requirements of OSHA Standard 29 CFR 1926, Safety and Health Regulations for Construction, and relevant requirements of CFR 1910, Occupational Safety and Health Standards. The most relevant subsections to review are:
- 1910.1030, Bloodborne Pathogens
- 1926.20, General Safety and Health Provisions
- 1926.21, Safety Training and Education
- 1926.22, Recording and Reporting of Injuries
- 1926.23, First Aid and Medical Attention
- 1926.28, Personal Protective Equipment
- 1926.50, Medical Services and First Aid
- 1926.95, Criteria for Personal Protective Equipment
- 1926.102, Eye and Face Protection
- 1926.103, Respiratory Protection
Mechanical tradespeople working on sanitary drain and sewer systems should be provided proper PPE, training on how to properly use the PPE, and hand washing facilities. Immediately after removing PPE, workers should wash hands, arms, and face (in that order) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
The following PPE is recommended for individuals working on waste, sewage, or vent systems:
- Safety goggles: to protect eyes from splashes of human waste or sewage.
- Protective splash-proof face shield: to protect nose and mouth from splashes of human waste or sewage.
- Respiratory protection: wear a NIOSH-approved N95 facemask.
- Liquid-repellent coveralls (such as Tyvek): to keep human waste or sewage off skin and clothing.
- Rubber outer gloves: to prevent exposure to human waste or sewage.
- Nitrile inner gloves: to prevent exposure when removing PPE and cleaning tools.
- Rubber boots: to prevent exposure to human waste or sewage.
Mechanical tradespeople working near plumbing vents and rooftop HVAC equipment, specifically exhaust fans, should be also be provided proper PPE, training on how to properly use the PPE, and hand washing facilities.
The following PPE is recommended for HVAC workers working near plumbing vents and rooftop HVAC equipment, specifically exhaust fans:
- Safety glasses with face shield: to protect eyes and mouth from aerosol transmission of the virus.
- Respiratory protection: wear a NIOSH-approved N95 facemask or half-face respirator with HEPA filters to protect from inhalation of aerosol transmission.
- Protective suits/coveralls (such as Tyvek): to protect against aerosol transmission.
- Cut resistant outer gloves: to protect from cuts and tears to inner glove.
- Nitrile inner gloves (6 mil thickness or greater): to prevent exposure to liquids and when removing PPE and cleaning tools.
- Disposable booties: to prevent potential contamination of work boots.
After completing work, the following procedures protect the worker and occupants of the building. Properly removing and securing the PPE ensures that the worker does not contact contaminated surfaces while also not allowing the transmission of airborne contaminants.
- Complete cleaning of tools and equipment. See guidelines below.
- Remove suit and gloves by rolling inside out, being careful to not come in contact with any contaminated surfaces.
- Immediately after removing PPE, place in a plastic bag that can be sealed.
- Wash hands, arms, and face (in that order) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Keep your PPE clean by following manufacturer instructions carefully.
Good work area and tool cleaning practices are also extremely important. The following procedures will protect the worker while also disinfecting the area, which in turn protects the occupants of the building.
- Avoid sharing tools with coworkers to the greatest extent possible.
- When choosing cleaning chemicals, look for cleaning agents effective against viral pathogens.
- If such cleaning agents are not available, use soap and water and dry tools thoroughly after use.
– You may also use bleach solution by diluting 1 parts household bleach with 10 parts water. Spray onto surfaces or soak items in solution.
- EPA’s (www.epa.gov) List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2
If working in a healthcare facility, the Infection Control Risk Assessment (ICRA) program for the facility must be followed regarding anterooms, wearing and removal of PPE, and cleaning of tools. It may be necessary to provide isolation and negative pressure to protect the building’s occupants.
The CDC recommends that workers perform the following preventive/protective actions, generally and while at work:
- Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds immediately after working on a sanitary waste and vent system.
- Avoid touching face, mouth, eyes, nose, or open sores and cuts while working on a sanitary waste and vent system.
- After working on a sanitary waste and vent system, wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before eating or drinking.
- Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after using the toilet.
- Before eating, remove soiled work clothes and eat in designated areas away from human waste and sewage-handling activities.
- Do NOT smoke or chew tobacco or gum while working on a sanitary waste and vent system.
- Keep open sores, cuts, and wounds covered with clean, dry bandages.
- Gently flush eyes with safe water if human waste or sewage contacts eyes.
- Use waterproof gloves to prevent cuts and contact with human waste or sewage.
- Wear rubber boots.
- Remove rubber boots and work clothes before leaving worksite.
- Clean contaminated work clothing daily with 0.05% chlorine solution (1-part household bleach to 100 parts water).
- Clean and disinfect tools and equipment used.
It is important to follow social distancing recommendations. Try to keep a minimum six-foot distance between others. Wear a mask. Remember, it could take anywhere from two to 14 days for COVID-19 symptoms to appear, if they even appear at all. If you believe you have contracted the virus, stay home, contact your supervisor, and seek assistance from your medical provider.
All tradespeople should receive training on disease prevention. The training should include information on basic hygiene practices, use and disposal of PPE, and proper protection when working on drain, waste, and vent systems or HVAC systems. Workers must also be urged to promptly seek medical attention if displaying any signs or symptoms of the virus, such as such as vomiting, stomach cramps, and watery diarrhea. Workers should not report to work if they are feeling ill. This puts coworkers and other building occupants at risk.
It is recommended that tradespeople be trained and certified to ASSE/IAPMO/ANSI Series 12000. ASSE Series 12000, Professional Qualifications Standard for Water Management and Infection Control Risk Assessment for Building Systems, is a standard that sets minimum criteria for the training and certification of pipe trades craftspeople, contractors, and other construction and maintenance personnel on how to safely work in an environment with the potentially deadly diseases that may be present within worksites.
Hopefully, this pandemic comes to an end in 2021. Until then, remember to follow the CDC guidelines and keep everyone safe. As with every catastrophe, we adapt, and essential workers keep society moving forward. We have learned a lot from this pandemic – we have learned how to better protect ourselves and others from harm. With these lessons and all we have learned from the past, we are equipped to move forward and meet the next challenges ahead. At the end of the day, two statements hold true: one is that the plumbers protect the health of the nation. Secondly, essential workers place themselves at risk during a crisis and should have the ability, through training and PPE, to return home safely.
Article by Scott Hamilton first appeared in ASSE’s Working Pressure magazine