News & Events

Plumbers be aware

Apprentices to experienced plumbers and all levels in between need to navigate a range of potential health and safety risks in the workplace.

From exposure to hazardous substances to the potential of working with asbestos-containing materials and the dangers of working at heights, there are numerous occupational risks that plumbers must be aware of and follow good work practices to avoid.

According to WorkSafe Victoria data, there were a total of 337 claims made in the electricity, gas, water and waste services industry across 2017, and more than 2,300 claims made across the same industry between 2011 and 2017.

While this figure contains occupations other than plumbers, it is indicative of the fact that workers expose themselves to numerous potentially serious hazards when working with electricity, gas and water.

WorkSafe Victoria’s interactive Injury Hotspots website breaks down the most common injuries and hazards for plumbers specifically working in the construction injury, based on injury claims.

Almost one quarter of claims (22 per cent) relate to hand or finger injuries including wounds and lacerations. To prevent these risks, WorkSafe Victoria recommends the use of lightweight and ergonomically designed power tools, ergonomically designed shovels with long handles and avoiding manual digging wherever possible by mechanically excavating.

Appropriate clothing and footwear can also help to prevent injury. Steel capped boots, long pants, gloves and wrap-around eyewear provide protection from eye injuries from flying particles and help to prevent burns.

Other common plumbing injuries reported by WorkSafe Victoria include knee injuries (13 per cent of injury claims) from slips, trips and falls and back injuries (16 per cent of injury claims) from lifting, pushing, pulling and handling materials.

Adhering to lifting techniques and avoiding repetitive manual tasks, and ensuring colleagues do the same, can play a key role in reducing or eliminating these type of injuries.

While personal protective equipment is essential in preventing some workplace hazards, both residential and commercial properties provide many other dangers.

Approximately one in three Australian homes, most commonly built or renovated before 1990, are estimated to contain asbestos.

Plumbers can be exposed to asbestos-containing materials through water and drain pipes, hot water units, tanks and boilers. The inhalation of airborne asbestos fibres can lead to long-lasting and serious health issues such as mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer that the Cancer Council of Australia reports led to 675 deaths in 2015.

However asbestos-containing materials cannot be identified by sight alone, and plumbers are advised to proceed with caution if they have any concerns about a worksite. A licensed asbestos removalist can check the area and remove any friable (meaning it can be broken up with your fingers) asbestos before proceeding with the job.

Similar cautious approaches should be taken when working with substances like lead or mould.

The use of power tools in close proximity to water systems also means plumbers are exposed to electrical hazards such as electrocution. The Department of Education’s safe@work program advises workers to treat all hot water lines as if they have heat trace cables attached, and that electric tools must be regularly tested and tagged.

Biological hazards including must also be understood and managed, with exposure to sewage through working on pipes or septic tank outlets potentially contributing to the development of tetanus, hepatitis A and leptospirosis.

These illnesses can be contracted if microbes from raw sewage enter the body through the nose, mouth, via inhalation or even through open wounds.

Ways to reduce these risks include wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, washing and disinfecting any wound that may have had contact with sewage and avoiding consuming food or drinking in areas where sewage may be handled.

With so many occupational health and safety risks present to plumbers, education, responsibility and a team-based approach are required to ensure an incident-free workplace.

Master Plumbers Members can call Rod Tresidder on 03 9321 0745 or 0406 996 301 for free advice.

Personal protective equipment can reduce the risk of injury in the workplace

Gloves are essential in preventing wounds and lacerations