| Cincinnati shows the way with lead line replacement safety program
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Cincinnati shows the way with lead line replacement safety program

As it works to protect its customers from lead, Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) is also showing other utilities how to best protect their own workers.

Cincinnati crew replacing lead service lineGCWW’s efforts to keep employees safe from lead exposure during lead service line replacement are highlighted in a newly published report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Reducing Workers’ Lead Exposure during Water Service Line Removal and Replacement.

NIOSH is a research agency within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, focused on the study of worker safety and health. (Pictured above, NIOSH assessing a GCWW LSL replacement job site.) 

Dana Furlong“I think it’s pretty awesome to be using our safety program as a best practice,” said Dana Furlong, GCWW’s supervising environmental safety specialist. “GCWW has a world class lead safety program and the lead service team here is known nationally, as is our thoroughly written set of operating procedures.” 

After more than 50 years of replacing a percentage of its public lead service lines (LSLs) annually through its capital improvement program, a city ordinance prompted GCWW to accelerate its efforts by launching an Enhanced Lead Program in 2016. GCWW’s extensive experience with a dedicated LSL replacement team over the next few years led to analysis, testing and the development of detailed safety practices around managing employee lead exposure during LSL replacement activities. 

Examining LSL safety procedures

GCWW began taking a closer look at its safety procedures in 2019, three years after the water system assigned and trained a team dedicated full time to LSL replacements. At the time, GCWW had about 15,000 public and 41,700 private LSLs remaining in its system. (Pictured right, NIOSH inspectors at an LSL replacement site.)

When team employees expressed concerns about their daily exposure to lead, GCWW took steps to improve work practices around hazards such as lead particle inhalation, ingestion, and cross-contamination from lead particles on tools, personal protective equipment and clothing. The employees and their family members were trained on occupational lead exposure for their safety.

At the time, there were no Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and guidelines to address lead exposure during outdoor pipe replacement activities and/or handling and cutting lead pipe.

“There is a lead standard from OSHA that generally covers the construction hazards related part of working with lead, which I used when providing our lead hazard awareness training,” said Zachary McCoy, senior environment health safety specialist with GCWW. “Some members of the crew started asking questions that prompted them to get their blood lead level tested, and two of them had a slightly elevated level.”

Expanding safety practices

As a result, the city’s risk management department contacted NIOSH and invited it to perform a first-of-its-kind Risk Hazard Assessment for two active job sites. In July and September 2019, a NIOSH team interviewed the LSL removal team, evaluated their work processes and inspected the job sites. 

“It was a positive experience all around, pretty cutting edge and a unique approach to NIOSH as well,” Furlong said. “It really eased any employee concerns that had been on the table. They had the full understanding that this was a learning process for the betterment of every utility in the nation and abroad.”

The NIOSH assessment produced some key findings, including the presence of lead on employee hands, inside work gloves, on surfaces inside their work trucks and in the locker room.

Zachary McCoyThe resulting NIOSH recommendations included improvements to:

  • Surveillance, training and work practices
  • Personal protective equipment uses and training
  • Processes and training for employees to keep their hands clean and free of lead
  • Cleaning procedures
  • Processes to periodically test hands, surfaces and tools for lead 

Since the NIOSH assessment, GCWW has adopted protocols such as professionally laundering LSL team uniforms, storing tools separately from vehicles and storage areas, and having team members wear nitrile gloves under work gloves and Tyvek protective coveralls.

“It all comes down to making sure people are safe,” McCoy said. “GCWW has everything laid out in a thoroughly written set of operating procedures, and we’re more than willing to share our resources and work practices.”