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Working in or near water, rivers and seas

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There are a number of dangers that you could face when working in or near water, rivers and seas (including working on board a boat). This guide identifies some of the risks, including the potential exposure to sewage.

How can working in/near water affect you?

  • Remote working: Working near water or on board a ship at sea may mean that you aren't near a source of medical treatment, so you should ensure that you inform your employer of any underlying health conditions in case of a delay in seeking medical treatment.
  • Potential exposure to sewage: Sewage treatment reduces the water content and removes debris but does not kill or remove all the microorganisms, so exposure to sewage can occur when working near water.
  • Skin problems and dermatitis can be caused by wet work/exposure to water.
  • Other diseases. There are other water-borne diseases caused by parasites, bacteria and viruses that can be found in water or animals that frequent water or areas close to water (such as rats).
  • Cold weather/cold water exposure: This can exacerbate arthritic/rheumatic diseases.
  • Employees on seafaring ships: People working on seafaring ships must have an appropriate medical fitness certificate stating that they are fit to do the work they are employed to do (an ENG1 or ML5 medical certificate).

What are employers' responsibilities?

Employers must ask employees who are to work in/near water whether they have any health conditions that may require urgent medical attention. Full risk assessments of the environment should be undertaken due to the often remote working environment. If necessary, an occupational health opinion may be required.

Employers may need to put appropriate skin health surveillance procedures in place where employees are regularly exposed to water or undertake regular wet work.

Employers should provide appropriate information and/or equipment where there is a likelihood that employees may be exposed to sewage. Regarding inoculations, employees involved with sewage have been routinely offered inoculations against Tetanus, Polio, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B in the past. The Health and Safety Executive Utilities National Interest Group and the Employment Medical Advisory Service (EMAS) advise (and current research suggests) that the need for inoculation of workers is significantly lower than it was in the past. In particular, the incidence of Hepatitis A in the general population has significantly declined in the past 20 years to the extent that routine immunisation against Hepatitis A is no longer recommended for workers likely to come in contact with sewage. The decision whether or not to offer Hepatitis B immunisation should be made on the basis of a risk assessment. The risk assessment should take into account the likelihood that employees may come into contact with used syringes or needles. Employers should ensure that employees remain up-to-date with Tetanus and Polio vaccinations, however.

Employees who are at risk of cold weather exposure should be provided with protective clothing and/or adequate warm clothing (including gloves and boots) appropriate to the prevailing conditions. When working over water at low temperatures (average sea surface temperatures of 10o C or less) there is a particular risk that cold shock or rapid hypothermia would develop should anyone fall into the water.

It is the employer's responsibility to ensure that the appropriate medical fitness certificate (ENG1 or ML5) is obtained for seafaring staff. Only approved medical practitioners can undertake these medicals can be found, a list of which can be found in Department for Transport website.

Consideration should be given to the provision of appropriate welfare facilities for employees working in or near water or exposed to these water environments.

What help is available for employees?

The Health for Work Adviceline 0800 077 88 44 can offer guidance on the implications of certain health conditions for staff working on/near water. Information can also be offered about appropriate inoculations and skin surveillance programmes.

You can also contact your union or health and safety representative for advice if you have any issues relating to working in or near water.

Sources of further information

The Clear Water 2010 guide offers guidance on the health hazards of work involving exposure to sewage in the water industry.

Information on the website on working in the marine, maritime and freshwater sector.

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