Wastewater treatment plants are among the most hazardous places to work. Not only are workers exposed to the “normal” risks of being around heavy equipment, but they also face the additional risk of exposure to toxic chemicals and other hazardous materials. Thus, it is extremely important for wastewater treatment plants to have a thorough strategy and program to promote and maintain safety.
What follows is a checklist of key items to consider when putting in place a safety program capable of passing inspection:
- Develop a response plan for all types of in-plant risk. These would include: exposure to chemicals, disease and weather events such as tornadoes; handling, transportation and storage of materials; falls, slips and other injuries; overflows and spills; and establishing log-out and tag-out procedures.
- Thoroughly document all procedures for each risk response. Each step should be detailed in chronological order, providing an explanation of the “who, what, where, when and how.”
- Familiarize all employees with the documented response plan. This is not a one-time event. Procedures should be reviewed in detail on a regular basis, to facilitate understanding and ensure that newly hired employees are introduced to the plan.
- Post response plan procedures in public areas of the wastewater treatment plant as another way to promote awareness and understanding.
- Conduct drills on a regular basis, again to promote awareness and understanding — and also to reduce the potential for confusion or panic in the event of a real injury or accident.
- Make sure employees have the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for all areas of the plant, including the lab. OSHA has extensive PPE standards, which can be reviewed here. Equipment covered includes: eye, face and head protection, and respiratory devices and other items pertaining to chemical hazards and mechanical irritants.
- It is common in wastewater treatment facilities to have visitors and tour groups. These people may not be acquainted with safety procedures or even aware of the potential hazards. A short briefing when visitors arrive, or a simple handout, may help put them in a safety-conscious frame of mind.
- Take care in specifying areas of the facility that visitors should not have access to. Make sure visitors are always accompanied by one or more trained, experienced employees during their visit.
- Appoint a specific individual to be responsible for the safety program. Unless safety is a top priority for someone, it may become a low priority for everyone.
- Make sure your wastewater treatment plant is in conformance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidelines; specifically, NFPA 820. This standard describes requirements for ventilation, construction materials, electrical equipment, fire protection and administrative controls.
- OSHA safety requirements may also apply to areas within your wastewater treatment plant. In particular, warning signs should be clearly posted in confined spaces which are not designed for ongoing work and are accessible on a restricted basis. Typical areas in a wastewater treatment plant include aeration basins, primary tanks, manholes, and vaulted sampling pits.
- Create safety teams to expand interest in and leadership of the safety initiative. Team members should have a presence in every shift of the operation. Their responsibilities can include leadership roles in various response plans, along with conducting small group or one-on-one safety awareness meetings.
- Report safety statistics prominently in the plant. Fortunately, accidents and injuries are not an everyday occurrence in most wastewater treatment plants. The downside of this (if you can call it that) is that safety can become something that is taken for granted. However, if employees are reminded multiple times a day that they have gone for, say, 100 days without an accident, they may not be so apt to take safety for granted.
- Bring in outside safety trainers. While it may not be advisable to outsource complete responsibility for safety to an outside consultant or firm, it does make sense to supplement in-house training with outside resources. For many employees, when an internal message is reinforced by an outside voice, it carries more weight. In addition, outside trainers that are experts in the field of industrial safety bring new ideas and best practices to you, which are invaluable for bringing continuous improvement to your safety program.
- Keep learning. Along similar lines, safety leaders and all operations managers should regularly attend conferences, meetings and online webinars devoted to industrial safety in general and wastewater treatment plant safety in particular. One of the biggest advantages a wastewater company can gain over safety challenges is knowledge.
A strong safety program reduces the potential for injury and death. But the advantages of a well thought out, well-documented, and well-implemented safety program hardly end there. Safe wastewater treatment plants have healthier and happier employees, reducing turnover, work-related absences and insurance-related costs, not to mention improved morale and better all around performance.