How to Stay Safe While Cleaning Pipes

The use of high pressure jetting to clean pipes is now common, and it is important to remain vigilant about the potential hazards and the procedures necessary to perform cleaning jobs safely. Safety should be continually emphasized to operators and should always be a primary consideration in carrying out the job. With proper training and safe practices, jetting hazards can be effectively managed.

Hazards of Pipe Jetting

High pressure waterjetting equipment used in pipe cleaning is powerful and operated at pressures that can easily penetrate the skin and cause internal tissue damage. A waterjet injection also carries significant risk of infection. Even when a fluid injection appears minor, medical attention should be sought to evaluate internal damage and the need for antibiotic treatment.

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The industry has seen incidents and even fatalities in the past due to high pressure jets. In one incident several years ago, a drain cleaning operator was struck in the neck by a waterjet and bled to death before emergency medical care could be provided.

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In addition to the water itself, debris from the pipe being cleaned presents a hazard. Pipes can carry a multitude of harmful bacteria and microorganisms. Attention should be given to preventing exposure of eyes, nose, mouth, ears and any cuts or wounds to produced water or debris.

An out-of-control hose is another hazard. If the nozzle exits the pipe under pressure, it becomes a dangerous projectile with enough power to cause serious injury. Workers have been injured and even killed from the impact of the nozzle itself.

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Operating Practices

A major safety consideration in pipe jetting is the tools and procedures to prevent the nozzle from exiting the pipe under pressure. Operators should always insert the nozzle several feet into the pipe before the high pressure pump is engaged and brought up to pressure. Adding markings on the hose near the nozzle or a leader hose of a different color will alert the operator that the nozzle is nearing the exit of the pipe. Finally, the system should be shut down and depressurized before doing any maintenance, repair or troubleshooting.

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Serious incidents and even fatalities have occurred due to reversals within the pipe, where the nozzle comes back out under pressure in the direction of the operator. This situation is extremely dangerous, but can be prevented with proper equipment and procedures. A nipple or rigid pipe length between the nozzle and the hose should be used to physically prevent the nozzle from being able to turn around within the pipe. Keep in mind that pipes with bends and intersections will require a longer rigid length, because the bend effectively increases the ‘diameter’ in which the nozzle can reverse.

It is also important to guard against failures of the tooling or equipment. The system should never be operated above the pressure rating of the lowest rated component in the system. Inspection and proper care for hoses, nozzles, and other components will both extend their service life and prevent dangerous failures in the field.

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Another important consideration is the setup of the job site. Suitable barricades should be set up around the work area to protect other workers and bystanders from potential exposure to jets or debris.

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Employing the Right Protective Equipment

Proper selection of PPE can help prevent injuries and keep operators comfortable. Heavy duty rain gear can keep the operator dry and protect from any debris that exits the pipe. Gloves, rubber boots with metatarsal guards, and hearing protection should also be employed.

Workers’ eyes are especially vulnerable to both high pressure water and splashes or debris produced by the cleaning action. Eye protection including splash-proof goggles and face shield can offer protection.

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Maintaining a Culture of Safety

The potential hazards of pipe cleaning should be emphasized to operators, and training should be ongoing. It is important for workers to feel comfortable speaking up in a situation that is unsafe. With proper training, equipment and procedures, pipe cleaning jobs can be completed safely and efficiently.

Peter Wright is the association manager for the Waterjet Technology Association (WJTA).

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