Everyone involved with the installation, pumping and inspecting of a septic tank should be proactive in making sure the lids are safe.

If you have been in this industry for some time you have certainly seen a lid on a cesspool, septic, aerobic or pump tank that was not on tightly, was deteriorating or maybe covered with plywood.  

These situations need to be seen as an opportunity for education and a repair that could prevent a tragedy. In mid-July, in my home state of Minnesota, a toddler died after falling into a septic tank. Without knowing the details, I can’t help but wonder why this accident wasn’t prevented. The news reports included a message from the sheriff’s office urging parents to keep children away from septic tank access locations and to inspect them to make sure that entry points are properly secured. Was this septic tank recently inspected? Did the parents understand the risk of an unsecure/unsafe lid?

Unfortunately, this tragedy is not the first time something like this has happened. Since 2012, I was able to identify seven similar sad stories of children falling into septic tanks, and those are just the ones that made the news. In addition, there are stories of pets falling into unsecured tanks too.

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As an industry, we need to do everything we can to prevent these stories from being told again.

  1. If you see an unsafe lid, don’t walk away from it! Often when you are out doing service or an inspection on a system the owner is not home. This typically results in a report with a list of repair activities that need to occur and you wait to receive permission. Issues of safety should not be optional repairs. Therefore, having service and maintenance vehicles stocked with likely material for lid repair and replacement is key. In addition, have safety tape and lathes to block off the area until the repair can be made with the supplies available. A new lid can be made available for under $50.
  2. Include information about lid and tank safety on all education materials you provide and place danger signs on exposed lids. The potential risk of an open septic tank is not something that all members of the general public understand and it is part of all of our jobs to change this. To the public, falling in a septic tank seems like a disgusting mess to get out of, and unfortunately some people think that it doesn’t pose a real danger. Include a reminder to check tank covers between servicing to make sure lids are in place, screws are securely fastened and there is no cover damage.
  3. If you are concerned about a lid that is technically safe but likely to be driven over or accessed by the public, install a permanent barricade, secondary restraint or additional locking mechanism. A safety screen or secondary restraint can be added for as little as $25 and provides an extra layer of protection, and should be installed even if the access is not exposed to traffic and public.

Whose responsibility is it to make sure this access is safe? The system designer, the tank manufacturer, the lid manufacturer, the tank installer, the inspector, the service provider and the homeowner must all play a part in this. Each one must ask themselves what they can do to prevent these terrible accidents. The life of a child may be at risk.

About the Author
Sara Heger, Ph.D., is an engineer, researcher and instructor in the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program in the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota. She presents at many local and national training events regarding the design, installation and management of septic systems and related research. Heger is education chair of the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association (MOWA) and the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA), and serves on the NSF International Committee on Wastewater Treatment Systems. Send her questions about septic system maintenance and operation by email to kim.peterson@colepublishing.com.

Related: Blog: Disaster averted: Toddler pulled from septic tank

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