Image source: US Library of Commerce, 1943, which states that the image has no know restrictions on use. “Trampas, New Mexico. Water is precious at the home of Juan Lopez, majordomo (mayor), but the family try hard to keep clean and neat, even though they do use the same water and the same towel.”
On 1 July 2021, Our World in Data published data on people’s access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and basic handwashing facilities. One in four people do not have access to safe drinking water. Nearly half of the world do not have access to safe sanitation. Nearly one-third of the world do not have access to basic handwashing facilities.
What does it mean?
Public health measures, especially access to clean water, are widely agreed by historians to have had the largest impact on quality and length of human life, even as compared to such amazing discoveries as antibiotics and vaccines. As summarized by Claire Ninde of the San Juan Basin Public Health agency:
Over the last 200 years, U.S. life expectancy has more than doubled to almost 80 years (78.8 in 2015), with vast improvements in health and quality of life. However, while most people imagine medical advancements to be the reason for this increase, the largest gain in life expectancy occurred between 1880 and 1920 due to public health improvements such as control of infectious diseases, more abundant and safer foods, cleaner water, and other nonmedical social improvements.
In a 2008 article in the American Journal of Infection Control, three authors discussed the intertwined effects of personal and community changes:
[H]ygiene improvements at the individual and community levels, such as sanitary living conditions and practices and potable water and sewage facilities, have played a major role in reducing morbidity and mortality from infections ….
For example, frequent handwashing – an individual level behavior – can be effective only if people have access to clean water – a community level improvement. Of course, it is worth noting that while the need is great in many parts of the world, even in the US, these basic systems are sometimes lacking; see Flint, Michigan.
Engineers have an obvious and large role in such community improvements. As the CDC states:
Engineers are an integral part of the public health team that helps define what is possible, identify existing limitations, and shape workable solutions. Their efforts have contributed immensely to reducing disease and preventing injury in the United States and around the world.
The data reviewed by Our World in Data are part of a review of progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which were set in 2015. Engineers are playing important roles in progress on these Goals. For example, in its 2019 endorsement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the American Society of Civil Engineers said
By helping meet the SDGs the engineering profession contributes to a world where all people have access to the knowledge and resources with which to meet their basic human needs and promote sustainable development in such areas as water supply and sanitation, food production and processing, housing and construction, energy, transportation and communication, income generation, and employment creation.
What does it mean for you?
The positive effect of individual and community level efforts in sanitation provides a lesson in how simple measures consistently applied can have amazing results. I am sure you can easily generate examples from manufacturing (regular maintenance and scheduled safety checks), from customer service (regularly thanking customers), and so forth, of how simple improvements can have positive effects in your organization. What are the simple behaviors, consistently performed, that could have big paybacks for your organization?
The other lesson is that obtaining such effects relies both on individual efforts but also on community – or system – improvements. Just as people can keep their hands clean only if they have access to clean water, improvements in the actions of individual workers require the creation of systems that support those actions. For example, exhortations to be safe must be supported by the provision of safe systems, equipment to keep workers safe, and other such measures.
Where can I learn more?
The Encyclopedia Britannica has an excellent review of public health historically and currently.