Personal protective equipment (PPE) is equipment worn to minimize exposure to a variety of hazards. Examples of PPE include such items as gloves, foot and eye protections, protective hearing devices (earplugs, muffs), hard hats, respirators, and full body suits.
Hazards exist in every workplace, but sewer and drain cleaners work in some especially dangerous circumstances and should take special precautions for their safety. OSHA requires that employers protect their employees from workplace hazards that can cause injury.
In this post we address common PPE used in sewer and drain cleaning. The information here is general in nature and doesn’t address all workplace hazards or PPE requirements. See OSHA requirements for more details. And remember: when in doubt, wear the protective gear.
Know Your Gear
A head injury can be fatal or can impair you for life. Wearing a safety helmet or hard hat is one of the easiest ways to protect your head from injury. Hard hats can protect you from impact and penetration hazards as well as from electrical shock and burn hazards.
OSHA requires that employers must ensure that their employees wear head protection if:
- Objects might fall from above and strike them on the head;
- They might bump their heads against fixed objects, such as exposed pipes or beams; or
- There is a possibility of accidental head contact with electrical hazards.
Hard hats are mandatory in construction areas. If there’s a chance of falling items in your work area, wear a hard hat. It’s also not a good idea to wear one when entering a confined space, like beneath a house or in an attic. You might also consider a “bump cap.” Bump caps can reduce exposure to lacerations and abrasions caused by minor cuts to the head. They are appropriate only for work situations which do not require ANSI-compliant head protection.
Many on-the-job eye injuries occur because workers are not wearing any eye protection, while others result from wearing improper or poorly fitting eye protection. Be sure you’re wearing appropriate eye protection for your job, that it fits well, and that you’re wearing it properly at all times.
Eye protection is especially necessary for sewer and drain cleaners. Clearing stoppages can dislodge debris, which can damage your eyes. And an even bigger concern is exposure to chemicals and contaminated water.
- Safety glasses
These protective eyeglasses have safety frames constructed of metal or plastic and impact-resistant lenses. Side shields are available and should be used in sewer and drain cleaning.
These are tight-fitting eye protection that completely cover the eyes, eye sockets, and the facial area immediately surrounding the eyes. They provide protection from impact, dust, and splashes. Some goggles will fit over corrective lenses.
- Face shields
These transparent sheets of plastic extend from the eyebrows to below the chin and across the entire width of the employee’s head. Face shields protect against nuisance dusts and potential splashes or sprays of hazardous liquids but will not provide adequate protection against impact hazards. Face shields used in combination with goggles or safety glasses will provide additional protection against impact hazards.
Determining whether you need to wear hearing protection can be a challenge. Exposure to excessive noise depends upon several factors, including:
- The loudness of the noise as measured in decibels (dB).
- The duration of your exposure to the noise.
- Whether you will move between work areas with different noise levels.
- Whether noise is generated from one or multiple sources.
OSHA has guidelines for when an employer is required to provide hearing protection. Generally, the louder the noise, the shorter the exposure time before hearing protection is required. Some types of hearing protection include:
- Disposable earplugs
Disposable earplugs are the most common type of hearing protection. They’re usually made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PU (polyurethane) foam. They are self-forming and usually one size fits all. They’re intended for single use, and should not be cleaned or re-used.
- Reusable earplugs
Reusable earplugs are made of a flexible material, like silicone, and made to fit the ear canal. They’re intended to be cleaned with soap and water and re-used. Reusable earplugs are more durable than disposable, but they usually have a lower NRR (noise reduction rating).
Earmuffs have soft cushions which seal around the ears to block noise. Glasses, facial hair, long hair, or facial movements such as chewing may reduce the protective value of earmuffs.
Coveralls may be uncomfortable in hot weather, but they’re important for keeping your uniform or clothing clean. Especially when you have to enter dirty areas like crawl spaces, coveralls will help you contain the mess and extend the life of your uniforms. They also provide an extra layer of protection between your skin and harmful chemicals. If you do come in contact with a dangerous substance, you can easily remove your coveralls and the risk of exposure.
If you’ll be working on a job that will produce dust particles (such as grinding, sawing, or sanding), you will need a disposable face mask. This will keep particles from entering your nose or mouth. If you’ll be working in an area with exposure to germs and chemicals, you may require heavier-duty respiratory equipment. In addition, we recommend detection equipment for carbon monoxide, smoke, or gas. This isn’t something you wear, but it will keep you safe.
Gloves protect your hands from sharp objects and are necessary for sewer and drain cleaners. Cuts and burns can happen when you use a cable machine: if the stoppage releases suddenly, the cable can spin at up to 400 RPM. It’s also important to protect your hands from high-pressure water when hydrojetting. Remember, it only takes 100 PSI of pressure to puncture human skin.
Two pairs of gloves should be worn at all times:
- Nitrile gloves
The first, inner pair should be a medical grade or higher nitrile glove. Painter’s gloves or other thin, easily torn gloves should be avoided.
- Outer gloves
The outer pair of gloves depends on the equipment being operated. If the technician is using a cable or snake machine, then the outer pair of gloves should be sturdy and textured. Examples of these gloves are metal-reinforced leather gloves or rubber Ugly® gloves with PVC chips. The texture on these gloves reduces the possibility of the glove being captured by the cable under torque, which can result in serious injury.
If the technician is operating a hydrojetter, then the outer gloves should be gauntlet-style (extending well above the wrist) cut-proof rubber gloves that have a grip molded into the gloves, which helps ensure the hose doesn’t slip through the operator’s fingers.
Back and Knee Protection
Plumbers often work in positions that put extra stress on their backs and knees, such as in tight spaces or at awkward angles. You also deal with heavy equipment frequently during the course of your workday. Wearing back support is a good idea to prevent pain or injury. Using knee pads or a skid-proof kneeler will also protect your knees.
Rubber Work Boots
You’ll be working in wet environments. To minimize the risk of slip-and-fall injuries, choose non-skid soled work boots with protective toes.
Evaluate each job individually to determine if additional PPE is required. Each job and job site will have its differences and may require extra equipment to keep you safe. Remember, the goal is for everyone to go home safely at the end of the day. When in doubt, wear the PPE.