In many Sub-Saharan African countries such as Uganda, rapid urban growth is attributed to increased industrialization, commercialization, employment opportunities, and rural-urban migration. With the current rapid urban population growth of 25%, Uganda is projected to be among the most urbanized countries in Africa by 2050. The growing urban population has led to an increased need for on-site sanitation technologies which require functioning fecal waste management systems and institutions to operate.
A sanitation worker is a person who is responsible for addressing any challenges along the sanitation chain. Sanitation workers are involved in emptying of pits and septic tanks; cleaning toilets, sewers and manholes; and operating pumping stations and treatment plants. Although sanitary workers provide a fundamental environmental health service to society, their occupation exposes them to extreme health and safety hazards including social discrimination and stigma. This study was carried out to establish awareness of occupational biohazard risks and utilization of personal protective equipment among sanitation workers in fecal waste management plants in regional cities in Uganda.
This study involved both quantitative and qualitative methods conducted among 417 sanitation workers in fecal treatment plants in Uganda’s nine regional cities of: Arua in West Nile; Lira and Gulu in northern Uganda; Mbale and Jinja in Eastern Uganda; Masaka and Kampala in central Uganda; and Fort Portal and Mbarara city in western Uganda. In addition, 17 key informant interviews (KIIs) were conducted among key stakeholders such as the officials at the fecal waste management plants, National Water and Sewerage Corporation, Public Health departments in the selected cities, and the Ministry of Health (MOH).
Findings from the study showed that, among the 417 sanitation workers, most (95%) were males, majority (46.5%) were 30 years old and below, and 44.8% had secondary education as their highest level of education. Only 32% of the workers reported to have spent more than 5 years working at the plant, 46% worked for more than the recommended 8 hours shift, and 26% worked in both day and night shifts. Of the different roles played at the treatment plants, 51% were involved in collection, 62% in emptying, 45% in transportation, 22% in treatment, and 32% in disposal of fecal waste. Sanitation workers reported being exposed to various occupational risks that could lead to injuries, illnesses, and death. These risks included exposure to fecal pathogens, strenuous labour, working in confined spaces, exposure to poisonous gases, and the use of hazardous chemicals.
The participants identified fecal waste collection points and points of fecal waste treatment especially at screening level as the most at-risk for occupational hazards for sanitation workers. Participants acknowledged that exposure to occupational hazards increases chances of disease-causing pathogen transmission to the public in addition to causing adverse health outcomes to them. The event of an occupational incident also reduced the productivity, efficiency and effectiveness of plant performance at the sewage treatment plants and the sanitation workers who earn a living on daily basis. One of the officials interviewed was quoted saying “We had a case were two people died in a septic tank. They were trying to empty it and what killed them were the gases inside the septic tank which caused suffocation."
Although Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks, water proof boots, and overalls ought to be provided to employees working in a fecal sludge establishment, about 61% reported that they bought their own, and only 68% said that they always wore the availed PPE when working. However, of the respondents that did not use PPE, 61% said that PPE was not provided to them, and 55% said that PPE was hard to get and expensive to buy.
Results showed that PPE use was 32% higher among workers who had knowledge about any occupational health and safety guidelines related to sanitation work than those who not knowledgeable. At the fecal management plants that reported the presence of occupational health and safety personnel, PPE use was 25% higher than the plants without. The prevalence of PPE use among respondents who reported that it was mandatory to use PPE at their workplace was 14% higher than those were it was not mandatory. The prevalence of PPE use among respondents who reported the availability of PPE at their workplace was 53% higher than those did not have PPE at their work places.
From the study, several recommendations were suggested in relation to improved use of PPE. Employers and managers in fecal waste private companies and fecal waste treatment plants were urged to regularly avail PPE to their sanitation workers and provide refresher trainings to reduce exposure to occupational hazards in their work places. These stakeholders were also encouraged to establish, review and strengthen safety policies at sanitation work places.
In addition, study participants expressed their plea to policy makers and other stakeholders to amend the present acts and regulations regarding safety of sanitation workers for easy implementation and enforcement of the such laws. "The Public Health Act needs to urgently be updated because you can find that something about excreta management safety is not clearly specified hence very hard to implement," said a manager at one of the treatment plants. Participants further emphasized the need for communication of safety regulations for awareness of sanitation workers. One of the sanitation workers said "There should be mass dissemination of these guidelines and the Act so that people know them. Even workers will be able to demand for their rights if they are made aware,"
Some of the managers interviewed said there was inadequate financial support hence the need for increasing funding in occupation health and safety to effectively implement safety activities such as supervision and procurement of necessary equipment. "Another thing is more funding towards occupational health and safety management is needed including for supervision. If there are more trainings for these people [sanitation workers], and there are more resources given to the provision of adequate PPEs, I think we can do better," said a manager.
This research study was conducted by a team of researchers from Makerere University School of Public Health led by Dr. David Musoke and Mr. Douglas Bulafu from the Department of Disease Control and Environmental Health. This project was made possible through a research grant from WaterAid.
Written by: Bulafu Douglas, Niyongabo Filimin, James Baguma, Bridget Nagawa Tamale, Namakula Lydia and Lesley Rose Ninsiima