Could Your Septic Job Make You Sick?

You should assume anything being exposed to wastewater is contaminated, but following these best practices will keep you healthy on the job

Could Your Septic Job Make You Sick?

Photo courtesy of Norweco

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All wastewater will contain fecal coliforms. These bacteria are present in the intestines of all warm-blooded animals, including humans. Although they are important in digestion, they are indicators that pathogens may be present. Pathogens like Giardia, Cryptosporidia, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio cholerae, etc., will be present only if those using the wastewater treatment system are infected.

However, since it is unlikely you will ever know the health conditions of those using a particular system, always assume that health risks exist. Pathogens are present in wastewater and can be found anywhere and on anything that is in contact with wastewater. This means they will be found in the septic tank, distribution pipes, and effluent treatment components such as a drainfield, mound, recirculating sand filter, etc. The largest populations are present in the septic tank and are reduced as wastewater receives treatment while traveling through the system. Exposure to wastewater may result in a number of illnesses, some of which include:

  • Gastroenteritis (cramping stomach pains, diarrhea, and vomiting), caused by E. coli and other bacteria, protozoans such as Giardia and Cryptosporidia, and some viruses.
  • Cholera (extreme diarrhea and dehydration), caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae.
  • Leptospirosis (flu-like symptoms, accompanied by a persistent and severe headache), caused by the bacteria Leptospira. Leptospirosis may result in damage to the liver, kidneys, and blood, and it can be fatal.
  • Infectious hepatitis (jaundice and fever) due to the virus hepatitis A. It causes liver inflammation. One obvious sign of the hepatitis A virus (HAV) is jaundice — yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes. Other signs include tiredness, abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea. About 15 percent of people infected with HAV will have prolonged or relapsing symptoms over a six to nine month period.
  • Legionellosis (lung inflammation with fever, dry cough, and aching muscles and joints) caused by bacteria.
  • Skin and eye infections.

Four main routes explain how pathogens can enter the body. These include:

  1. Mouth - Oral ingestion via hand-to-mouth contact during eating, drinking, and smoking and by wiping your face with contaminated hands or gloves. Ingestion is the major route of infection.
  2. Skin - Dermal contact from wastewater splashes. Having cuts, scratches and wounds raises the risk of infection.
  3. Eyes - Pathogens can enter the body through the eye.
  4. Lungs - Inhaling airborne microbes carried by dust, mist or fumes. Research has shown aerosols impair the immune system and have the potential to produce allergies in susceptible individuals including viruses (polioviruses, coxsackieviruses, echoviruses, rotaviruses, adenoviruses, Norwalk virus), and bacteria (Leptospira, Salmonella spp., Shigella spp., Campylobacter jejuni, Yersinia enterocolitica, Legionella pneumophila, Helicobacter pylori, Listeria monocytogenes, Mycobacterium xenopi). Another risk cited by the study was microbial allergens and endotoxins. The study stated that endotoxins, produced by bacteria, could cause respiratory and intestinal inflammation, diarrhea, fatigue, and nose irritation among sewer workers.

There are common sites contaminated with pathogens related to septic systems. Air in the vicinity of wastewater can lead to respiratory exposure. Tools, vehicle door handles, radio knobs and gear shifters result in dermal exposure. Eating lunch on the job site, smoking cigarettes, chewing gum, etc., can lead to ingestion of pathogens orally.

How to protect yourself and your employees

Since pathogens are naturally found in wastewater, they cannot be removed. The risk of contracting a disease decreases if you practice good personal hygiene and use personal protective equipment on the job. Some best practices and other pointers to keep in mind are:

  • Make sure you understand the risks these microbes pose to your health and ways that you can pick up infections. 
  • Always have a first-aid kit handy. Clean and disinfect all exposed wounds, and cover with a sterile, waterproof dressing.
  • Report any injuries suffered at the work site to your supervisor right away.
  • Use waterless hand cleaners, antibacterial soaps and antibacterial hand wipes on the job.
  • Do not eat or drink in a wastewater handling area.
  • Do not touch your nose, mouth, eyes or ears with your hands unless you have just washed your hands.
  • Wash your hands well with soap and clean hot water before you eat or smoke, periodically throughout the day, and at the end of your workday. Assume anything being exposed to wastewater is contaminated.
  • A respirator should be worn whenever you might be exposed to airborne pathogens, such as spray from a treatment device, or a humid atmosphere. The N95 respirator is recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The fit of your respirator is always important. Make sure that there is a tight seal between the face and mask. A leak would result in the inhalation of contaminated air. Facial hair is discouraged since it can interfere with proper respirator fit. To make sure respirators are fitted, worn, and used properly, a respiratory protection program is highly recommended.
Photo courtesy of Norweco
Photo courtesy of Norweco
  • Clean any part of you that is exposed to wastewater or sludge immediately.
  • Keep your fingernails short and clean them frequently.
  • Wear waterproof gloves when cleaning pumps or screens or when handling wastewater, sludge, or grit. Whenever possible, wear heavy-duty gloves (double glove) and boots that are waterproof and puncture-resistant.
  • Wear a surgical-type mask, goggle, face shield or visor if there is a chance that you will be splashed with wastewater.
  • Wear rubber boots or those that can be disinfected if you should step in wastewater.
  • Report any damaged equipment right away for replacement or repair.
  • Handle sharp items with extra care to prevent accidental injuries.
  • Clean contaminated equipment and tools on site with a bleach solution (1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water). Bleach loses its effectiveness after exposure to sunlight or dirt, so keep a fresh supply handy.
  • Shower and change your work clothes before leaving work for the day. Do not take contaminated clothing home for washing. Use two different lockers to separate your work and street clothes. If you must launder your clothing at home, launder your work clothing separately from family clothing.
  • Wash work clothing in hot water with chlorine bleach.
  • Discuss your occupation with your health care providers so they know what potential exposures you have due to your work.
  • Be sure your vaccines are up to date, especially for tetanus and diphtheria. Vaccination against hepatitis A is highly recommended.
  • Consult your health care provider about any flu-like symptoms, such as fever or severe headache, or any skin infections. Seek medical help if chest symptoms consistent with asthma appear. 

About the author: Sara Heger, Ph.D., is an engineer, researcher and instructor in the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program in the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota. She presents at many local and national training events regarding the design, installation, and management of septic systems and related research. Heger is education chair of the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association and the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, and she serves on the NSF International Committee on Wastewater Treatment Systems. Ask Heger questions about septic system maintenance and operation by sending an email to


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