Health and plumbing
Launched on World Plumbing Day 2012, The role of plumbers in managing current and emerging public hazards covers a range of topics, including a brief history of plumbing, the challenges of achieving safe plumbing throughout the world, and the future direction of plumbing.
The booklet was tabled in September 2011 at the World Plumbing Council Conference in Scotland and is a reference for all plumbing professionals, apprentices, the plumbing industry and consumers to put into context the contribution of plumbing to community health and the importance of ensuring well-designed, installed and maintained plumbing systems.
Jonathan Jackson (JJ): What was the reasoning behind the creation of The role of plumbers in managing current and emerging public hazards?
Shayne La Combre (SLC): Two things came together at the same time. The first is the emergence of World Plumbing Day and a global desire to better understand the contribution of plumbers to community health. We wanted to send a positive message that the principles of plumbing, including access to fresh water and sanitation, are for the greater good. No matter whether you are in a developed or developing nation, or whether you have no, simple or advanced systems, the role of the plumber is to understand and maintain those systems to preserve public health. So this book is about promoting the principles of good plumbing and the contribution of plumbers in optimising what is available. We also wanted to get the message out there that people should not be interfering with those systems; to do so would risk serious consequences such as the outbreak of disease or other illness. That is why plumbers and the broader community need to understand the importance of good plumbing.
The second issue we wanted to tackle was the lack of understanding among many plumbers about the importance of their role. Plumbing systems have been around for a long time and plumbers have been servicing those systems in that time, however sometimes it is not always clear what are the reasons why certain things work in a certain way. Helping plumbers to be re-educated about the reasons why they do certain things is important for the community, the plumbing industry and regulators in terms of compliance. It is one thing for us to sanction plumbers if they do something wrong, but we believe the more effective action is to help them understand the reasons behind certain practices and spell out the risks and consequences of bad plumbing maintenance, which most plumbers would be abhorred with.
JJ: Is understanding the foundations behind plumbing and plumbing systems the key message?
SLC: It began with World Plumbing Day. The whole purpose behind this was to pick up those themes and revisit the contribution plumbing has made to societies and how those societies have developed.
Going back a couple of years, with the heightened awareness caused by the launch of World Plumbing Day, the Victorian Department of Health (DoH) was keen to engage with the plumbing industry. They recognised that plumbing plays an integral part in maintaining health standards and the important preventative protection plumbing provides. It is one thing to cure a disease, but there are many more benefits and less suffering where the disease is prevented or contact avoided. To their credit, the DoH has developed an ongoing relationship with the PIC. This has seen us collaboratively looking at emerging issues and the implications for plumbing, to make sure that the regulatory development curve is ahead of anything that might become a community issue.
Further to this, the World Plumbing Council (WPC) in conjunction with the World Health Organisation (WHO) published Health Aspects of Plumbing, which is a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to understand about how plumbing systems and where the plumbing community fits in a health and safety scenario. It is a weighty text and requires commitment, but our document The role of plumbers in managing current and emerging public hazards may whet the appetite to read this essential plumbing reference.
JJ: How difficult is it stay ahead of the regulatory curve?
SLC: It depends on the nature of the issue. Awareness is the first step but this requires a proactive commitment. If the issue is something as simple as communication, we can take care of that quickly. Some issues require consideration of regulatory change and that is more difficult; you have to amass evidence, make the case for change and go through the processes that result in legislative change. Having said that, one of the most valuable contributions of being aware of issues is to also protect what we have. To do this it is important to make people understand why there are particular frameworks in place. Again, this is why this publication was created. It is an abridged version of the more fulsome WPC document; it is contemporary, Australian and relevant to a local context. It is an easy read for plumbers and community members who say ‘we didn’t really understand the ways that plumbing makes a contribution to community health and wellbeing’.
JJ: So what is the thinking behind regulatory change?
SLC: We are constantly challenged about the “burden” of regulation and the degree to which it is more onerous than it needs to be. Quite rightly regulators are required to justify why the regulation is necessary. So, being aware of where the risks will develop without appropriate protection helps us ensure continued regulation of that particular area.
In a country like ours where regulation has been around for 100 years in one form or another and has been effective, what can happen is people form the view that as the risk is no longer appreciable and we should therefore roll back elements of those regulations. That is where we get nervous, because to roll back a system that works may actually increase the risk of harm that we expected in the first place. And we may never be able to return back to the safety levels we had. Things are not always fully reversible so the stakes are high. We have seen the UK, Europe and other systems where robust schemes that were in place and afforded significant protections to their community dismantled or simplified in some cases without an understanding of the risks that those regulations dealt with. It can be argued that outbreaks of disease like foot and mouth and anthrax, can spread more extensively because of the reduced barrier that would have existed with, for example, more effective drainage.
We also have to look at the fact that risks are changing and often increasing. This is not a static situation. Look at the way we collect rainwater; there are a raft of new risks associated with new technologies and techniques. Different diseases move through different parts of the country, but the plumbing systems can represent a reliable bulwark in the protection against disease.
JJ: Is effective regulation compromised due to a loss of understanding and the advancement of technologies?
SLC: Regulators have a responsibility to scan the changing environment to ensure that regulations reflect that environment. Technology changes. The gas industry has long seen an inclined curve of technological development. So the gas industry is good at adapting to that change. Traditionally the water and sanitation industries have been less exposed to significant change. This is no longer the case. A convergence of risks arises for example from the very appropriate advances being made to pursue better sustainability outcomes. Specifically you can consider the air tightness of a buildings has increased, this has had an impact on the assumptions around how a room is ventilated. This raises new considerations for the operation of gas appliances.
Regulators have been held to account more in recent times to justify regulation and become better at understanding why the current regulatory framework exists. The old arguments of ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ won’t be persuasive any more. So we have to think the best action to take to embrace an emerging technology: is there a better way to deal with the technology than regulatory intervention? The days of just assuming any regulation is correct and necessary are over; regulators now must be more accountable and be able to demonstrate what is appropriate and why. Industry and Governments will be looking to make the markets as free as they possibly can and any unnecessary regulation should be challenged. So regulators must be specific in why their current regulations are necessary and represent only the minimum interference needed to mitigate against the harm.
JJ: What is the onus on the manufacturer in this?
SLC: Manufacturers are pretty good at understanding the risks associated with their products, because there is such a close nexus between that and their brands. Most manufacturers get very few chances to diminish their market presence. You do get rogues and in this era of collapsed distribution channels there are fewer checkpoints. It used to be manufacturer, wholesaler, distributor and retailer in the channel where at any point you could intervene and mitigate against a potential risk. Now you can jump on the internet, get a container load of product from a country with poor quality manufacturing practice and supply a product that may not be a good fit for this country’s standards. The reputable manufacturers are careful about maintaining the commercial equity of their brands and will seek to follow the relevant regulatory framework. Where we do run into trouble is where the entire manufacturer to customer supply chains can be hard to track. This is where our framework needs to be dynamic enough to evolve and respond but still provide sufficient certainty particularly when they influence investment decisions. If we bring it back to plumbing, the first point that we are aware of a problem is often when the plumber installs the product. That is regrettable and we should be doing everything we can to make sure that is avoided. However, I prefer this option to having no last line of defence at all.
JJ: In which case, it comes back to the plumber to know what they are installing.
SLC: It is a shared responsibility. Ignorance is no defence, but we are often told by plumbers that staying current with the regulatory framework is difficult. Plumbers should not need to be conducting their own mini NATA testing to see if a pipe is manufactured to specification. What they should be doing is looking at the WaterMark and seeing that it is compliant. it is an issue for the regulator to make sure that any certification or assurance scheme is robust and can be understood but then the plumber must do all he can to understand how that scheme works. You can have all the assurance in place but that Mark or importantly the lack of it will not assist if you are not looking for it.
JJ: The role of plumbers in managing current and emerging public hazards has been written for a local market, but is it relevant for developing nations?
SLC: It has been written in a way that recognises there is a continuum. Some countries without established plumbing systems are grappling with creating barriers to separate fresh water and sanitation. For them it is about awareness building and understanding those principles. In more established frameworks, it is about reminding practitioners of the contribution of these principles so they are understood and not ignored. No matter where you are in the continuum, if you take something from this brochure then all the boats float up. So it has important messages for the Australian community and we certainly want to be part of an ongoing commitment to see plumbers aware of their contribution, but for others making them aware and gaining traction on the fundamental need for access to fresh water and separation of sanitation is a good thing too.
JJ: We have seen natural disasters here in recent years that have devastated communities and destroyed access to fresh water and sanitation. How have these situations impacted the understanding of issues we have talked about above?
SLC: What it says is that even in sophisticated, advanced systems you are not immune to catastrophic breakdowns and failure. Events natural or human error can cut off access to all the systems we take for granted no matter how robust they are or how many redundancies are built in. In many ways you are even more vulnerable because our communities have no real capacity to function without these systems for any prolonged period of time. Those who are responsible for the response must be aware of the systems that are in place to understand the best ways to remediate them.
It is also an opportunity, in Haiti, where systems may not have been as they are here, we can actively introduce better infrastructure rather than just doing like for like. So when you go into recovery mode, you have an opportunity to establish a new level. The principles in this document are intended to encourage this.
JJ: We’ve talked about systems, but tools and practices also require fundamental levels of understanding.
SLC: This goes to the essential issue of what is plumbing and what is competency in plumbing. Plumbing is a broad church, but learning needs to take place according to principles that will provide a foundation for the inevitable changes that will come. If you are unsure about a certain technology, you should be able to go back to first principles and build back up. It’s no good just understanding a single narrow application because next week that has changed, but the principles don’t change. Its how we accommodate advances that matters. If your approach is grounded in principle, then most plumbers – with the assistance of additional training and support online, or their own networks – will seldom find themselves painted into a corner.
For instance, is there a more significant event in the history of human health protection than the invention of the humble trap? But what is a trap? It is a barrier between sanitation and fresh water. I’ve had plumbers tell me it is to slow down flow, reduce the noise, and catch tea leaves… If you do not understand the principles, you won’t understand why you have to have appropriate venting or how to avoid siphon. If you do understand and bring all the principles together, then you begin to appreciate that every compliant installation you do has ensured that the community is protected from bacteria, virus and germs. Any of these nasties don’t discriminate – young, old, rich or poor they can bring down entire communities. When you reflect on this its not surprising that most plumbers I deal with have a great sense of pride in what they do and being part of this industry.
JJ: Like Legionella. How do you minimise Legionella?
SLC: Legionella is always present and there are certain people in the community who have a propensity for greater adverse reaction should they receive certain exposure. Whilst you may not be able to prevent it we should never cease to be vigilant about defending against the things that increase the probability of Legionella developing and what can be done to prevent it. This is where plumbers who have the best intentions, but who do not understand the systems they are working within, can cause serious harm. If we have stored warm water accumulating somewhere that is going to make its way into the system and it has not been heated to the appropriate temperature, you have a problem. Can a practitioner look at a hot water installation and know how the tank and circulating system is going to function and what operating temperatures it is going to achieve? If so then they are likely to be able to look at an application such as a car wash and ensure that it is configured in a way that will not allow warm water to accumulate. If they don’t understand the principles, they will not be able to decode the system to understand there is an increased probability of warm water developing and harm resulting.
So, you can not eradicate problems such as Legionella, but you can build systems that prevent it: don’t have long dead legs in pipe runs; don’t have situations where you don’t know the system operating parameters; understand the compliance principles that sit underneath it. If you do these things you are less likely to expose your customers to risk.
JJ: How do you relay the importance of plumbers to consumers?
SLC: There is no better example than the recent drought, where consumers who believed they were doing the right thing engaged in risky water handling activities. Some of those practices would have given rise to risk from water being stored in inappropriate ways and using water of an inappropriate quality that has become a virtual Petri dish of bacteria. There is a definite role for increasing the knowledge of consumers. The effort with World Plumbing Day has been a step forward. Making publications like this, available to the broader community is another way and our partnership with the Department of Health who are dealing with the community also helps.
Take something like CO poisoning. While Energy Safe Victoria and PIC are lifting awareness with plumbers the Department of Health is dealing with doctors and medical professionals because many CO issues are going undiagnosed and some people are turning up for treatment with flu like symptoms that are misdiagnosed due to a lack of awareness.
The plumbers themselves could also do more; they are often the worst ambassadors and don’t communicate properly with consumers. So helping them understand the contribution they make and the areas they make it, helps them communicate the real worth of their skills to their consumers.
JJ: This means that plumbers should know their competencies…
SLC: If you are not competent in an area do not touch it. If you are not licensed or registered in a stream and haven’t put yourself up for any recognition in a field, then you are a breaking the law if you perform that type of work.
All plumbers should undergo extra training. Skills have never been more obtainable and accessible. The broader your shop front, the better you can service your consumers and the less likely you are to fall short on a job. Plumbers must ask themselves what they are doing to stay current. Are they looking at magazines, websites and making an investment in themselves? As an industry we don’t rate well at that. Some do, but this is one area where the individual has to make the effort. Once you have set up a few networks that work for you, it is not that hard. Information is more accessible than ever, you just need to learn to tap into it. You first need to see yourself as worth investing in.
JJ: Is something like World Plumbing Day the first step in helping plumbers realise they are worth investing in?
SLC: Our current efforts with World Plumbing Day have been a good first step. It is a desire and passion of the WPC to build on World Plumbing Day. This initiative only started three years ago. It has built year on year and we want to continue that. We have come through the introduction and establishment phase; now it is about using this platform to drive awareness about access globally to fresh water and sanitation, making consumers more aware of the role of plumbers and getting plumbers to understand their contribution and how they can make it greater. If we can make progress on those issues and deliver better plumbing systems around the world, you’ve got better community outcomes at this most fundamental level.