In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the White House announced that plumbers and other essential critical infrastructure workers may continue normal operations. To anyone who has ever had a toilet back up or a pipe burst, the government’s advisory comes as no surprise.
But just because plumbers are used to working in sometimes unsavory conditions doesn’t mean working during a viral outbreak will be business as usual. Company owners and supervisors must quickly adjust their health and safety practices to keep employees, customers and themselves safe on the job.
Learn more about what the novel coronavirus is, how it can spread and what you can do to limit exposure for everyone who interacts with your business.
Breaking Down COVID-19
When news outlets and medical organizations talk about COVID-19, they’re referring to the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The virus spreads mainly through person-to-person contact via respiratory droplets, like the ones expelled when someone coughs or sneezes. This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people to practice social distancing (staying at least 6 feet away from others) and to wash their hands frequently.
Because the virus may also be able to live on surfaces for an extended period of time, people should disinfect commonly touched surfaces like countertops and light switches often.
Recommendations for COVID-19 Safety
Despite the level of exposure plumbers face, company owners and supervisors can share these simple tips with employees to help minimize the spread of the virus:
1. Call customers ahead of time.
Before heading out to a customer’s home, consider calling to ask if anyone in their house has shown symptoms of COVID-19 or has been exposed to the virus. Though this doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be exposed yourself, it helps mitigate your risk.
To strengthen trust with customers, you may also use this call to communicate the health and safety measures your company is taking to ensure the safety of your customers and employees.
2. Keep your distance.
Stay at least 6 feet away from coworkers and customers. This is especially important if you are working in the homes of elderly or other at-risk populations.
If you have customers that like to watch you work (or hover, as some do), it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them to maintain a safe distance. Assure them it’s simply a precaution to make sure everyone involved stays healthy.
When it’s time for the customer to pay for your service, send them an online invoice by email. If you don’t have touchless payment options in place, consider having the customer read their credit card number to you so you don’t have to pass the card back and forth.
3. Wash your hands and tools more often.
In plumbing, dirty hands and tools come with the territory. But now is the time to ramp up your washing frequency.
Hands. The CDC recommends washing often for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, especially after sneezing, coughing, blowing your nose or returning from a public space. If you’re unable to wash your hands right away, use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. Though it may be difficult to resist, avoid touching your face between hand washes.
Tools. Before and after using tools, wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer. Try to avoid sharing your tools with co-workers if possible. At the end of the day, clean the tools with a mild soap and water to remove dirt and grease before disinfecting with a diluted bleach solution.
The infographic above from the CDC shows ways to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
4. Equip your teams with the right supplies.
Make sure employees have gloves (preferably disposable), shoe covers and hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. Though some plumbers are starting to wear masks on the job, it’s important to note that surgical masks aren’t as effective as respirators. But according to OSHA, respirators must “have the proper filter material (e.g., N95 or better), be NIOSH-certified and must fit tightly to prevent air leaks.”
If you’re not sick, the CDC says you don’t need to wear a face mask, especially since they are in short supply.
5. Send symptomatic employees home.
If any of your employees report symptoms such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath, encourage them to stay home and avoid contact with others for 14 days. Before seeking medical care, they should consult their doctor and heed the CDC’s advice on those who are or may be sick.
If the employee has had interactions with other employees, inform other employees of their possible exposure but maintain confidentiality to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
6. Reduce the risk to family members and roommates.
Sharing a home with other people? Follow the CDC’s guidelines for protecting loved ones and disinfecting your home every day. If you believe you may have been exposed to the virus but are not showing symptoms, it may be a good idea to wash yourself and your clothes as soon as you get home. Consider taking extra precautions like washing your hands often for at least 20 seconds and using separate personal items to avoid spreading it to others in your house.
7. Use this time to review OSHA’s safety standards.
Though there are no specific OSHA standards that mention the coronavirus or COVID-19, its Safety and Health Regulations for Construction standards can help limit plumbers’ exposure to the virus.
According to the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, the most important OSHA standards for plumbers to review are:
- 1926.20 – General safety and health provisions
- 1926.21 – Safety training and education
- 1926.22 – Recording and reporting of injuries
- 1926.23 – First aid and medical attention
- 1926.28 – Personal protective equipment
- 1926.50 – Medical services and first aid
- 1926.95 – Criteria for personal protective equipment
- 1926.102 – Eye and face protection
- 1926.103 – Respiratory protection
8. Offer virtual services when possible using tools like FaceTime and Skype
Consider offering virtual services to help customers with easy to fix issues. This helps them avoid extra traffic in their homes, while also helping reduce the exposure of your employees to unknown environments.
Using these tips and guidelines, you can help protect your employees, customers and yourself from exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. You’ll also establish your company as one that cares for its workers and customers, which will have lasting benefits beyond the pandemic.
Note: Due to the ever changing status of the Coranavirus Please check the CDC web site to confirm the latest information.