The hazards facing drainage workers and how to keep them safe

Leeds football club - drain repair

A lot of people probably believe the most dangerous things about drains and sewers are the potent smells that are known to make their way into our homes and streets.

But unfortunately, that’s not true.

You may not realise, but drainage workers are at risk of serious injury every time they go about their day-to-day work. And it’s our job to make sure they are as safe as possible.

In this post we discuss some of the hazards facing drainage workers, and how we – and you – help reduce the chances of injury for drainage workers.

Confined spaces

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), workers in a range of industries such as dock working, mining and the sewage industry, are killed or seriously injured in the UK every year as a result of working in confined spaces.

A confined space is defined by the HSE as “a place that is substantially enclosed (though not always entirely), and where serious injury can occur from hazardous substances of conditions within the space or nearby”.

That means workers who need to head into sewage and drainage systems are regularly working in confined spaces, and could be confronted by a variety of risks, including:

  • A lack of oxygen
  • Liquids that can fill the confined space
  • High concentrations of dust
  • Hot conditions
  • Poisonous sewer gases
  • Fire and explosions

Sewer gases explained

When household and industrial waste decays in a sewer, it forms one or more gases, generally referred to as ‘sewer gases’. Those gases include:

  • Ammonia
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Methane
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Sulfur dioxide

Some of these gases are non-toxic, but gases such as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide can cause serious health conditions, and even death.

That means drainage workers are at a real risk of being exposed to gases of this kind.

What’s more, another characteristic that links these gases is that they are flammable and combustible. This is all well and good if those gases are contained and kept away from anything that could cause them to combust. But if not, it can lead to extremely damaging consequences.

Explosions and fires

The gases listed above often become trapped in drains as a result of blockages forming, leading to a buildup of stagnant water or excess air in the drainage system rising up through your pipes.

The video below by MythBusters shows the extent of the damage that can be caused when sewer gases build up in a ‘closed system’ sewer (i.e. where they build up and can’t move freely through the sewer pipes) and are exposed to a spark or naked flame.

But that’s not to say explosions caused by sewer gases will only occur within sewers. If they seep into a property, it’s entirely possible for a fire or explosion to take place in the home too.

A history of sewer and drain explosions

There have been many documented cases of explosions caused by sewer gases.

The video below shows a huge explosion in China in 2013, when a sewer explosion tore through a large section of a residential road. Thankfully, there were no casualties.

And here’s a video of the aftermath of a sewer explosion in New York in 2009:

How we keep drainage workers safe

At UKDN Waterflow (LG), the safety of our employees is our biggest priority.

We make sure that all staff working on the drainage network have completed their confined space training as quickly as possible upon joining the company.

What’s more, we are committed to ensuring staff are able to constantly learn and develop their skills in different situations, so training takes place on an ongoing basis.

We also make sure we carry out regular risk assessments, have a safe system of work in place for all employees working in hazardous situations, and provide appropriate tools and personal protective equipment.

How you can help

But what can you do to reduce the hazards facing drainage workers? Well, many of the reasons they end up in risky situations is because of blockages in drains. You can personally help reduce the chances of blockages occurring by avoiding putting any of the DIRTY DOZEN down your drains:

  1. Food waste
  2. Fat, oil and grease
  3. Plastic bags
  4. Nappies
  5. Sanitary towels, including tampons, applicators and wrappers
  6. Cotton buds
  7. Condoms
  8. Bandages and plasters
  9. Baby wipes
  10. Medicines, needles and syringes*
  11. Cleaning wipes
  12. Razor blades

*These should be taken to your local pharmacy or health authority for safe disposal