Guest Column | March 24, 2021

Those Behind The Water: Protecting The People Who Make The Process Possible

By Julia Selwyn


Nothing may be more universal than the power of water. It is at the center of ecosystems. The foundation of societies. The core of human beings. A single molecule of water carries two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. It is easy to think that something so sustaining should be more complex. And yet it is not, giving validity to the idea that power truly lies in simplicity. But it does not remain there. Influential power is when a problem is recognized, and silence is not an option. When there are steps toward permanent change in a field where performing a duty does not cost an individual more than he/she has agreed to invest. Water may be simply powerful, but the decision to protect those who work for it on our behalf is far greater. The water industry allows us to open our kitchen faucets, even though its workers are far too often not met with the same kind of ease they work to provide us daily. Conversations surrounding injuries sustained in the water industry are imperative so that an active effort can be pioneered to pursue solutions that last. Because without our water industry workers, power would take on a whole new meaning and so would water itself.

The Risks

A little over 70 percent of earth’s surface is water. But less than 5 percent of it is drinkable. Water industry workers have many responsibilities in their respective sectors. One of those being operating machinery and overseeing processes to filter, purify, and distribute clean water to homes and businesses across the nation and around the world. But responsibility, regardless of the work, is often not taken on alone. Risk accompanies it; and, unfortunately, the water industry has seen its consequences. A report by DEKRA Organizational Safety & Reliability “reveals that the utilities sector is at higher risk for serious injuries and fatalities…than other industries… [and] water has the highest … exposure rate of all utilities studied, at 42%, followed by 32% for electric and 29% for gas.”1 There are several factors that feed into this reality apart from malfunctioned machinery or faulty use of it. In the water industry, specific chemicals are used that, with unprotected handling, could easily lead to dangerous results. And wastewater is a sector of the industry that needs attention. “Wastewater treatment plant operators are exposed to a variety of hazardous chemical agents, contained within the effluents and the reagents used in the water processing, or generated during the waters treatment. These chemical agents may cause acute poisoning, chemical accidents…damage to the respiratory system, allergies [and] chronic diseases.”2 The water industry is necessary to keep society moving. However, without addressing these risks for its workers, the reward will be laced with a domino effect of injury and business setbacks.

Moreover, while the high presence of chemicals can be hazardous when airborne in facilities or in contact with workers, there are other realities that may not be as widely familiar that are just as serious. It has been a year since the beginning of a pandemic that has caused shutdowns both nationally and globally. It has forced individuals to just remain, and as a result, reinterpret the purpose and functions of their homes. There has not existed a significant understanding of confinement as an individual society and as a collective people like what has been recently known. Yet long before COVID-19 became a common word in discourse and dictionaries, confined spaces had been the office of many water treatment workers. This kind of working environment has over time seen “loss of consciousness, impairment…[and even] asphyxiation resulting from oxygen deficiency or immersion in a free-flowing material such as liquid, grain, sand, fertilizer or water.”3

But one side effect of confined spaces — one that those who may not be in the water industry but who have lived through the last year can identify with — is the psychological implications. When considering the mental health effects seen throughout this pandemic and comparing them alongside those that have been experienced in the water industry, the similarities are striking. After a few months into the global health crisis, “A KFF Health Tracking Poll…found that…difficulty sleeping…and worsening chronic conditions” were among other symptoms reported by adults who were studied in July 2020.”4 Similarly, “fatigue [and] claustrophobia”5 have been reported across the water treatment industry along with other unfortunate conditions. The pandemic has shed a light on experiences that otherwise may not have been commonly universal, and for that, there is hope for a collective effort towards resolution.

The Solutions

Hence, water treatment injuries can only be further limited with proactive solutions that challenge risk before injury can exist. Contacting local, state, and national government officials with these issues can bring the kind of attention that, with enough support, may translate into legislative change. According to Statista, in the year 2018-2019, handling, lifting, or carrying was the second leading cause of injuring in Britain’s water supply industry, with the first being slips, trips, or falls on the same level.6 With this reality, including innovative devices and procedures is necessary. If large salt bags or any kind of heavy product are needed in a facility’s water treatment process, rather than potentially feeding the aforementioned statistic, it would be beneficial to implement a system that can deliver the product where it needs to go on the workers behalf. This keeps the production running smoothly, and attention can be better balanced amongst other aspects of the water treatment process.

Additionally, regular machinery and chemical evaluation must not be abandoned. Had this been adhered to more religiously, 10 people in 2018 may not have been seriously injured following an explosion at Chicago’s Calumet Water Reclamation Plant.7 And this is not an isolated incident. Large tanks, equipment, tools, and machines should require consistently scheduled cleaning and inspection. Signs of age and deterioration should be immediately met with improvements or replacement. Testing facility air quality must also be included in this regular maintenance because what cannot be seen can potentially be more fatal than that which can. When it comes to protecting water industry workers, proactive decisions reside in the details.    

Nothing may be more empowering than being a part of an industry whose success is geared towards changing the narrative — one that realizes water is more than a commodity and its value is immeasurable. At their jobs, water industry workers find themselves faced with risk that, under the right guidance, does not have to meet them there so heavily. Society needs them, and they need people to address the change that they may have yet to know. Beginning with the blueprints, facilities can house strategy instead of statistics. Worker rotations, machine innovations, and procedure evaluations are steps towards a future where history is not repeated. And at the end of the day, a future where water and its workers symbiotically thrive carries a ripple effect worth fighting for.

Julia Selwyn is the Marketing and Sales Administrator of AUTOBrine, a customized brine delivery system that automatically provides brine to water conditioning equipment where normally, manually loaded salt bags for the regeneration process would be required.