The global pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, prompted the Water Environment Federation (WEF) to conduct a critical review of pathways of potential exposure to this virus associated with the collection and treatment of wastewater.
In April 2020, WEF convened a panel of academics and practitioners, experts in the science and practice of wastewater collection and treatment, to conduct this critical review, which included an assessment of guidance found in WEF publications and other publicly available sources.
At the end of their review, the panel concluded that occupational risk of infection is low, standard wastewater treatment processes inactivate the virus, and additional research should be conducted to further increase understanding of hazards and protections for personnel. The panel also updated the guidelines for protection of wastewater personnel from potential pathways of exposure to biological hazards, including coronavirus.
The goal of the blue-ribbon panel’s review was to 1. Ensure that WEF provides the most current, evidence-based information on protecting worker health and safety 2. Provide appropriate input to the technical medical and public health community, including governmental agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and parallel authorities in other countries and 3. Ensure that worker health and safety guidance provided is consistent and accurately reflects the knowledge and insights of the wastewater sector.
The panel found that following engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) were the best practices for protecting the health of workers exposed to untreated wastewater. At locations where wastewater or sludge is sprayed, the possibility of inhaling potentially infectious agents will increase and use of surgical masks or N95 respirators, and goggles may help to minimize contact.
The panel also found that because of direct high exposure to untreated wastewater, collections system workers have greater risks of infection from pathogens. Furthermore, wastewater personnel engaged in biosolids handling, laboratory analytics, septic haulers, landfill leachate handlers, industrial pretreatment personnel, and persons handling ambient water quality sampling all have potential exposure. However, it is important to remember that the risks of contracting coronavirus are considered low because the infectious form of the virus has not yet been detected in wastewater.
The panel’s work resulted in updates to the WEF Manual of Practice, Safety, Health and Security in Wastewater Systems, specifically to the chapter that discusses types of hazards, how to prevent and treat infections, and which workers are at risk. Due to the importance of the topic, the Panel’s final report, entitled Protecting Wastewater Professionals From Covid-19 and Other Biological Hazards and which includes the updated biological hazards chapter from the MOP is freely available at https://www.accesswater.org/?id=-10027929.
The blue-ribbon panel also recommended conducting epidemiological studies of the incidence of infectious diseases among wastewater workers, with further analyses of PPE use and effectiveness. Additionally, it recommended a study to evaluate respiratory exposure for tasks performed by workers in wastewater collection and treatment. This is particularly relevant to aerosolization of wastewater whereby exposure to potentially infectious agents via aerosols may be possible.
The existence of COVID-19 provides a powerful reminder that vigilance is needed to protect all workers from potential hazardous exposure when working in a wastewater environment. It is crucial not only to continue exercising best practices normally taken against potential exposure to any pathogen, but now an even stronger commitment to these practices is imperative.
While new information continues to emerge on COVID-19, the important work of the Water Environment Federation's 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.
WEF’s overall response to the coronavirus pandemic has included providing the latest technical and scientific information to the water community, offering educational opportunities through digital programming, communicating regularly about resources and assistance available to the sector, and promoting the essential nature of water workers.
Dr. Andrew Sanderson, MD, MPH, FASGE
WEF Chief Medical Officer