Commentary: Battle against COVID-19 also rages underground

Over the last month we have learned just how much we take things for granted. That includes visiting relatives, handshakes and hugs with good friends, or even a dinner out at a restaurant.

In that same time period, we have also learned to appreciate the people we may have taken for granted. Certainly, that means the doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who work tirelessly to keep us safe and healthy. It also now includes grocery store workers who stock the shelves to keep us well fed, as well as those who prepare food for take-out.

There are countless other tangible examples – and hundreds of subtle ones, one of which is literally below the surface – the pipes that allow water to come out of our sinks and flush down our toilets.

The water and sewer workers are no less front-line pieces in the battle against COVID-19 as are the first-responders, medical personnel, or any other essential employees.

This awful disease can be carried through the system and can be passed on by coming in contact with waste and sewage. While the workers have Tyvek suits and other protective equipment, they’re putting themselves and their families at significant risk every day to keep others safe.
 An employee at a wastewater treatment center in San Jose, California, tested positive for COVID-19 last month, leading to 17 other employees having to self-quarantine. Besides perfectly illustrating the risk to sanitation workers, the diagnosis also opened discussion about the possibility that these centers could be short-staffed, which could lead to broader and deeper problems.

More locally, authorities are taking all feasible precautions. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has been a major champion for working people and residents during this crisis. He has been a decisive and active supporter of the workers who toil in the pipes below the ground for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. He has supported the BWSC workers with equipment, flexibility, and has had his administration consistently reminding Bostonians who are facing toilet paper shortages not to flush wipes or other materials that don’t break down as easily. They will lead to clogs and force sanitation workers into action in a dangerous situation.

Across the country, steps to mitigate the amount of work being done in water and sewer to reduce exposure have included postponing planned maintenance and upkeep on watermains and other parts of the infrastructure that would involve a number of workers in close proximity. However, that also comes with a risk – watermain breaks and other pipe bursts that would exacerbate an already sizable problem. 

Failures of sewage treatment systems would be catastrophic. If water stopped running in hospitals, or if backed-up toilets begin to overflow in an elder-care facility, lives would be even more imperiled than they are now. 

Most policymakers, government officials, and emergency planners are on the same page right now. They are all fully committed to doing everything they can to slow the spread of the disease and protect the public.

The larger test will come once the pandemic ends and society returns to whatever the new normal looks like. There is a renewed appreciation of medical professionals and first responders, as well as a newfound respect for supermarket workers, food handlers, and other service industry employees.

Water and sewage sanitation workers should be grouped in with these folks. It is easy to take running water and flushable toilets for granted when everything works the way it should. But we should remember the people who keep it running smoothly, and who are there when a problem arises. These workers are invaluable, even if we didn’t know or think about them before.

 Mike Vartabedian is the Assistant Directing Business Representative for International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), District 15, which represents workers at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.