COVID-19 Resources for Contractors (PDF)

Plumbing during the coronavirus crisis

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One day Mark Evans and associate Chuck Popp, pictured, were called upon to install a new pump, two-stage float switch and high-level alarm in a sewage pit after the existing equipment had been destroyed when a previous contractor tried to “snake out the drain” without understanding the system.

By Mark P. Evans

Wash your hands and stay home.

This directive is being promoted in every language in every country across the globe to combat the deadly virus that is ravaging our planet.

It comes as no surprise then that the International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) has declared that plumbers are at high risk of contracting COVID 19 and that they should assume it is present in all drain systems. They advise that all necessary precautions be taken to minimize the chance of contracting this deadly disease as there is no cure and the methods of transmission are not completely understood.

Life as we know it has changed forever and the world looks to the public health professionals for a way out of this desperate situation.

Plumbers are public health professionals and the world could take a lesson from the service plumbers out there that have always taken disease control seriously. Even on the best of days, a plumber is endangered every time he or she opens a clean-out cover.

The coronavirus is deadly serious, but it’s not the first killer in the drain we’ve had to face. SARS, Ebola and Legionnella are just a few of the enemies we’ve been threatened by, but let’s not forget that the common flu has killed millions of people across the globe and continues to this day. In every case, citizens are encouraged to protect themselves by washing the undesirables down the drain.

Apartment building drain stacks are often plugged.

All manner of filth

It’s not limited to just germs, bacteria and viruses either. All manner of filth and indecency can be found in our workspace. For example, we are warned not to mix certain products such as bleach and vinegar because it produces deadly chlorine gas, but on the other side of the P-trap everything is mixed and likely to be encountered by a plumber somewhere down the line.

Every kind of disease, human waste, discarded medicines, cleaning products … indeed anything and everything that will fit in the waste opening of any fixture can be found in the drain system.

A very critical point to be made here is that it doesn’t go away just because it can’t be seen anymore. It is my experience that most drains have some degree of blockage and many are nearly full.

Grease traps like this one adjacent to the food prep station in a senior’s home can be particularly nasty.

High-rise, high density residential complexes are notorious for the occupant’s mis-use of the drainage systems. The stacks are often full and are in reality no more than a filter for the liquid waste passing through them. A pillar of hardened, rotting grease slows the process of drainage down so much that a plumber is likely to encounter waste products from perhaps a month earlier because it’s still inside the building.

Training inadequate

What qualifies a person to enter this domain? I don’t think that earning a plumbing license is enough training for this type of work. I know it was never addressed when I went to trade school. There is no WHMIS (health and safety training) course that covers the hazards that are likely to be encountered in a drainage system.

It is my opinion that another level of eligibility should be required before a technician can work on a used drainage system because of the undeniable, sometimes incurable dangers found within.

In all my years in the business, I am lucky to have experienced only one incident that threatened my health to the point where I had to take antibiotics to combat the adverse effects of something nasty I crossed paths with inside the piping. The treatment was expensive, and the condition was long-lasting. I never found out what the specific cause was, but I will never under-estimate that hazard again.

Repairing the waste and overflow for a pedicure chair was disgusting, but all in a day’s work for our resident plumber.

I have since taken the necessary steps to up-grade my personal protective equipment (PPE) for these situations, which includes much more than just a mask and gloves. A full body hazardous materials (haz-mat) suit, goggles and de-contamination equipment are now in my arsenal of protective equipment. I know that I put myself and all that I may encounter at risk when I perform some of the more un-sanitary duties of the trade without taking the necessary precautions before and after exposure.

COVID-19 precautions

COVID-19 can be transmitted without the victim even knowing they’ve contracted the disease.

All body openings must be covered because minute invaders enter through these conduits. Eyes, ears, nose and throat have to be separated from danger by an impenetrable barrier that must remain complete until the threat no longer exists.

New installations aren’t so bad, says Evans. “I ‘benched’ many manholes in my day.” Benching is the act of sealing up all the entrance and exit holes as well as the base of a catch-basin or manhole with cement.

Some recommend not wearing equipment such as masks because it may encourage touching of the face which negates the protective efforts… I disagree. We encounter many hazardous situations in the plumbing business; this is simply another area requiring more education and training so those that need to use this equipment do so effectively.

This pandemic is the most serious threat of our generation and I encourage all the health care – plumbing – professionals in this business to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves and others. I recommend washing of hands and everything else that might have come in contact with this deadly virus. Your clothing, your tools and even your truck are potential contamination sites because this awful virus can survive on hard surfaces, especially plastics, for nine hours or more.

I extend a sincere, heart-felt thank you to all the brave men and women in this trade that continue to work so hard to keep civilization civil. Kudos to you!

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