When operators are working in their facility, there is the potential to be exposed to many different types of chemicals and diseases. For many years, work in the wastewater treatment field was considered the most hazardous, especially due to deaths involving confined space entry. This field is considered somewhat less hazardous today, but treatment plant operators still do experience health problems and deaths. These experiences occur in specific incidents involving chemicals in the sewer system and in regular work exposures throughout the plant and its processes. Some chemically related health complaints are acute in nature, involving short-term exposures and complaints, such as irritations of the eyes, nose or throat. Other problems are chronic in which repeated exposures, sometimes over several years, have had serious effects on internal organs. The primary route of exposure for operators is inhalation, with dermal absorption being the second leading cause of exposure.
Inhalation appears to be a major route for chemicals or organisms to enter the body. Some chemicals are air-stripped from wastewater and workers working near weirs, aerated tanks, dewatering processes and sludge processes. Aeration and dewatering processes also put droplets and particles into the air, which can be inhaled. Much of the material inhaled into the throat is cleared from the lungs and swallowed. As a result, respiratory and gastrointestinal exposure can occur from inhaled chemicals and organisms. Wastewater workers have also been exposed to chemicals while attempting to remove these substances from treatment plant equipment.
Dermal absorption or skin contact is also a route of entry for both chemicals and disease. Chemicals can be absorbed through the skin from contact with wastewater or sludge. Disease organisms can also enter the body through cuts or abrasions. There has also been a report of a wastewater worker who received a needle stick injury when removing debris from a bar screen.
In regards to exposure to diseases, operators are generally exposed to pathogens. Pathogens fall into five main categories: bacteria, viruses, protozoans, fungi and worms. Most of these pathogens use the fecal/oral route to spread disease. Fecal material, including human waste, contains pathogens. The usual method of infection requires you to touch the fecal material with your hands and then transfer it to your mouth, either directly or through food.
The use of proper hygiene measures, protective equipment and common sense prevent contact with pathogens or block their portals of entry. These measures help in the prevention of infection in operators. Wastewater operators have measures available to prevent infection, and some these include antimicrobial agents, automation, general cleanliness and consumption precautions. Operators should always take great caution in protecting themselves from possible contamination at their facility.