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Staying drug-free for safe sewer work

For most people, once something is flushed away into the sewers, it’s forgotten. It is not the case for those working in the sewer industry, though. The Covid-19 pandemic has made sewage and wastewater companies more alert to the risks that face their staff. With safety more vital than ever, the issue of drug and alcohol use at work cannot be ignored.

Drug and alcohol use by sewage workers

It is no secret that excessive drinking and the use of substances such as cannabis and cocaine are a problem in sewerage. They take the minds of workers off the more unpleasant aspects of their jobs. In a pandemic, such substances can be even more attractive because they provide a way of dealing with the stress of increased risk. The flip side is that they raise risks by increasing the chances that workers will make mistakes.

Proper use of PPE

Responsible employers follow the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) rules and equip their workers for the jobs they do. But PPE is worthless if not put on properly, or if careless actions on-site damage it. No matter how good a training programme is, it is no help if drink or drugs make workers forgetful or persuade them they do not need to conform to advice. In some cases, especially where they must help each other put on PPE, workers under the influence can also put their colleagues at risk.

What employers can do

There are two main actions that employers can take to reduce these risks. First, they can provide access to counselling and create a supportive atmosphere in the workplace, where staff and contractors are encouraged to talk about their worries. Second, they can establish a programme of drug and alcohol testing to help them identify workers who create risk.

Such testing is easy to administer and need not take much time. Urine sample analysis can be performed at HQ, or saliva swabs can be used on-site before PPE use, to enable workers to enter dangerous areas. Some employers choose to test every day or every week. Others find that spot testing is the most effective way to catch people trying to conceal their behaviour.

Supporting sewage workers

What should an employer do upon discovering a positive drug test result? Firing somebody on the spot can seem harsh, especially if they have been otherwise reliable. It can also discourage others from admitting that they have problems. When it comes to alcohol, people often fail to realise how much they are drinking or that it still affects them the next day. Often the best solution is to seek appropriate counselling, using daily testing to avoid risk in the meantime.

Sewage workers are the forgotten heroes of the pandemic, keeping vital systems running despite the risks to themselves. Employers need to support them by minimising those risks, even where that means protecting them from their own poor choices.

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