If you’re asking this question you’re either a new business owner or an employee concerned about the quality of water in your workplace. The provision of clean, potable (safe to drink) water in the workplace is regulated by the occupational safety and health (OSH) laws of your country.
Are employers obligated to provide their employees with filtered drinking water? OSH regulations only require employers to provide an adequate, reliable supply of safe, potable water to their employees. In most cases, tap water from a public main will be sufficiently clean to meet these standards.
Clean water is not only important for keeping employees hydrated while they’re at work, but poor water can have long-lasting effects on health, affecting employee productivity and hygiene.
International Labor Organization Drinking Water Standards
The International Labor Organization, formed in 1919, is an agency under the United Nations with a mission to promote awareness and recognition of labor rights. The Safety and Health at Work Act 2005 set forth regulations requiring employers to provide and maintain drinking water in the workplace. In 2007, its minister issued The Workplace (Drinking Water) Regulations 2007 with further details pertaining to the supply and drainage of clean drinking water in the workplace. The ILO requires employers to adhere to the following rules:
- All persons employed in a workplace must have access to “wholesome, cool drinking water” from a public main or other sources with written approval from the Chief Labor Officer. If drinking water cannot be sourced from a public main, it must be contained in a hygienic, protective container and labeled “Drinking Water”.
- Drinking water must not be located in rooms with sanitary conveniences. This is to prevent contamination of the drinking water supply by proximity to areas that may be dirty. Although there is water running through faucets in your office’s bathrooms, for example, the employer is disallowed from labeling this water as drinking water and suggesting employees may drink from it.
- Any drinking water provided in a dispenser or container must be replaced daily and accessible via tap. Once again, this regulation was created to ensure employees cannot contaminate the shared water supply in cases where a dedicated drinking water main is not available. It also prevents employees from drinking old water where bacteria and other water-borne substances may have had the opportunity to grow.
- Common drinking cups are not allowed. Disposable cups must be located near the source of drinking water. This is to prevent the spread of germs between employees and maintain general office hygiene.
- The employer is responsible for providing water drainage for spilled water
- Drinking water must be provided on every level of the workplace where employees perform regular work
How to Know If Your Tap Water is Drinkable
If your workplace only offers tap water and you’re worried it might not be sufficiently clean for consumption, consider testing the water quality. There are several options available to those looking to find how safe their drinking water is:
- Get an expert opinion. You should contact a local lab if you want to get an accurate report of the contamination levels of your water supply. A reputable lab will have some knowledge of the quality of water in your area, what kind of contaminants you might expect to find, and what kind of substances may be potentially harmful to employees. If you’re unsure of how to find an accredited lab to test your water, you can ask a plumber to take a water sample to be sent to a lab.
- Ask your plumber to test it for you. Your local plumber will usually have water quality test kits that they can use to test for the presence of contaminants in your drinking water. A knowledgeable plumber will have sufficient knowledge of the general makeup of the water in and around your place of work and know what chemicals or substances to look out for. Unlike in a lab, the test kits plumbers use can only detect the presence of potentially dangerous levels of specific contaminants, so don’t expect precise reports.
- Test it yourself. The testing kits most plumbers use can be found online or at your local home center. There are many varieties of water testing kits available and it can be a headache to browse through the options if you don’t know what to look for. A general rule of thumb: the more strips in the kit, the more contaminants the kit tests for. If your test kit only has one strip, it likely only tests for pH balance and not water contaminants.
Although home test kits can be great for quick results, a lack of understanding of local water conditions can mean a lot of frustration and trial-and-error. Improper testing procedure can also lead to incorrect test results.
The Differences Between Tap and Filtered Water
In most developed nations, water taken from the tap is treated and thus considered potable and safe for daily consumption. The definition of safe-to-drink water has been updated and modified several times since the 1970s. New technology and scientific discoveries have brought greater understanding of the drinkability of our water sources and the effects of water-born substances on health, requiring revisions to existing regulations. There is no universal consensus on what constitutes “safe” water, and what we may consider safe now could be considered hazardous 10 or 15 years from now. Current criteria vary all around the world, though the general trend over the decades has been to strengthen enforcement and add more protections.
Drinking water is taken from natural water sources like rivers and lakes or even underground reservoirs. In the United States, there is an upper limit to the percentage of contaminants allowed in drinking water. In order to ensure the concentration of harmful contaminants present in the water is safely below this limit, water goes through one or more treatment processes before being delivered to the public for consumption. The types of water processing methods used are determined by any applicable water standard laws and the condition of the water at its source. Many treatments leave some sort of residue in the product, such as dissolved substances or cleaning minerals; these can change how the water tastes or even smells but are generally safe for consumption. Potable drinking water would be the bare minimum level of clean water that your workplace would be legally allowed to offer to its employees.
Filtered water solutions offer drinking water that exceeds ILO OSH standards. Water that goes through a specialized filtration system contains few to none of the contaminants that are found in regular, potable drinking water from a public main. With the increasing amounts of pharmaceutical by-products, poisonous waste, and antibiotic-resistant pathogens found in our water sources, filtered water offers an extra layer of protection from potentially harmful contaminants that standard water treatment processes don’t clean.
Types of Water Filtering Systems
The subject of water filtering systems is one that could fill entire books, but if you’re looking for a water filtering system to ensure a clean, safe drinking supply for employees in your workplace the following is a list of some of the more popular filtering methods:
- Activated Carbon Filtering is one of the more popular filtering methods for being cheap and electricity-free. It involves the use of a porous activated carbon, often charcoal, to trap pollutants in its pores. It can remove chlorine and sediments and improve the taste and smell of your water but ignores salts and inorganics.
- Ceramic Filters are cheap, don’t need electricity, and can last for several years. Simple and easy to set up and use, ceramic filters can reduce the presence of bacteria in your water. The filtering process can be quite slow, however.
- Reverse Osmosis. Reverse osmosis involves the forcing of water through a membranous material. The water passes through the material, but contaminants remain trapped. This method is great at removing contaminants, bacteria, and viruses. However, up to 1/3 of the water is lost in the process.
- Water Distillation. Water distillation is the tried and true method most people learn about during school. Water is heated to evaporation, cooled, then collected in a separate container. This method requires heat, electricity, and several hours.
Should employers provide filtered water in cases where employees may be sensitive to the water treatment substance residue in tap water?
Employers are never required to provide filtered water to their employees. Drinking water sourced from a public main would be enough to fulfill this requirement. If you are sensitive to the substances found in public drinking water, such as chlorine, consider requesting a water dispenser or stocks of bottled water in the office. As mentioned above, employers are only required to provide clean drinking water in the workplace.
What are the health dangers of drinking unsafe water?
The effects of consuming contaminated water on your health can range from no impact to death depending on the types of contaminants found in the water and your sensitivity to them. Some of the long-term effects of drinking contaminated water only become evident after years of consumption. Some of the most common side effects include diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, and gastrointestinal illnesses.