Don’t Become Complacent When You Take a Wand in Hand

PROs who use high-pressure water to clean restrooms and trucks must diligently follow safety procedures.

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“High pressures can cause injuries similar to gunshot wounds, but have the added health hazard of involving contaminated water.”

That quote is from an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) article describing the dangers of high-pressure jetting.

Portable restroom operators face plentiful safety threats, from driving long routes carrying liquid loads and moving bulky objects by hand to working with liquid deodorants and cleaners. But technicians also face another underestimated risk — cleaning with water under pressure.

“Injection injuries can happen much lower than the pressures in use in drain and sewer applications. And that carries the risk of infection and tissue damage as well. … Water injection injuries can appear minor but can cause serious health complications, even at pressures in the range of a consumer pressure washer or drain cleaner,” says Peter Wright, association manager with the WaterJet Technology Association and Industrial & Municipal Cleaning Association, or WJTA – IMCA.


Despite being generally overlooked in terms of safety across the wastewater industry, due in part to a relatively low rate of injury when compared to working other aspects of these jobs, PROs may encounter frequent jetting dangers. Most notably, yard workers use high-pressure sprays to prep units to return to the field and clean their trucks and the inside of vacuum tanks.

“Trying to get people to understand that you can get injured by a water jet strike is probably the most difficult bit to get across,” says Nick Woodhead, president of US Jetting. “We’ve got to start promoting safety.

“I think people assume that hoses are not going to burst, and therefore, they are sort of immune. Or they’ve never seen a hose burst, or they’ve never seen a jet injury, so it doesn’t really register. People get complacent.”

And it’s not just equipment malfunction that operators need to worry about.

A case in point is Chad Unverzagt, an Indiana worker who was killed in 2012 while responding to a routine sewer blockage. Unverzagt wasn’t killed by an exploding pipe or other malfunction — his hose got loose while the system was pressurized as he was attempting to retrieve it from the pipe. It was a momentary lapse in a job he’d done a thousand times before over 30 years in the industry.

With no protective gear, he didn’t stand a chance against the high-pressure water, which lacerated his neck, killing him before help could arrive.

“That’s more of an isolated incident, but it’s worth reminding people,” Woodhead says. “That’s why you’ve got to know what you’re working in.”


For PROs who also provide septic maintenance or drain cleaning services and more frequently work in high-pressure water situations, protective clothing could be considered to improve safety.

“The safety gear is essential when you’re running a machine. So many people don’t wear anything,” Woodhead says. “We’ve got to try and get it across to people, it is worth investing in the kit to protect yourself.” US Jetting has made it their practice to supply a pair of protective gloves to customers with purchase of a jetting system, and it has encouraged other manufacturers to do the same.

Other products like semiautomated jetting systems give even more options for mitigating risk to operators.

“OSHA says if there’s safety gear available, the owners of the company are bound to supply it,” Woodhead says. “Rather than have government regulation, we’d rather be self-regulated and have people understand (the dangers).”

Beyond planning for the worst, simple common sense and following standard operating procedure goes a long way to ensuring safety. That includes checking the equipment before each task and performing the necessary maintenance.

“It doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to do the cursory checks,” Woodhead says. “You’ve got to do your due diligence.”

WJTA-IMCA offers several manuals covering many aspects of pressure cleaning, including best practice for waterjetting and industrial vacuum. US Jetting has its own video and PowerPoint presentation covering the basics of jetter operation and safety, and the National Association of Sewer Service Companies, NASSCO for short, has videos on jetting as well as a Jetter Code of Practice, which are available for a fee.


PROs must use common sense when operating jetters and pressure washers. Take safety precautions and operate methodically to avoid problems, Wright says.

“It’s definitely important to have respect for the power and the force of the high-pressure water streams,” he says. 


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