Non-potable water is not suitable for drinking and can cause health problems. Learn how to manage the risks of non-potable water and protect yourself and others.
What do we mean by ‘non-potable water’?
Non-potable water is not suitable for drinking but may still be used for other purposes. Potable water is water of a quality suitable for drinking, cooking and personal bathing. The standards that define potable water are described in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
Unless you know that water is of potable quality (for example, from a drinking water supply system), consider it non-potable and use it accordingly.
Examples of non-potable water used in the workplace include:
- rainwater from tanks used in cooling towers and car washing
- quarry water used for dust suppression and landscape irrigation
- swimming pool backwash water used for toilet flushing
- agricultural wastewater used for crop irrigation
- creek, dam and river water
- recycled water from a sewage treatment plant used for dust suppression, car washing or irrigation for landscapes and sports ovals
- recycled greywater
Recycled water is a form of non-potable water. Recycled water is any water that has been used at least once and then supplied for reuse, either treated or untreated. Without appropriate treatment, recycled water can contain a range of contaminants.
What are the risks of non-potable water?
Drinking non-potable water can cause health problems from micro-organisms and chemicals.
Non-potable water can contain micro-organisms, including viruses, bacteria (such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli ) and gastro-intestinal parasites (such as Giardia, Hydatid, or Cryptosporidium). These may be in the water even if it appears clear. They can cause severe gastroenteritis (vomiting or diarrhoea) that can last for several weeks. Infants, the elderly and people with suppressed immune systems are at greater risk.
You can get water-borne diseases without ingesting the water.
Non-potable water can contain chemicals from industry and agriculture, human or animal waste, water treatment and distribution, or natural contaminants (when water travels through soil). Soil can contain arsenic, heavy metals and pesticide residues. Dust from roofs can wash into rainwater tanks and can contain lead-based paints and tar-based coatings, and smoky residues from wood heaters.
Chemical exposure can cause short or long-term health effects. These can include skin discolouration, nervous system and organ damage, developmental and reproductive conditions, and cancer.
How can I manage the risk?
Workers and management can work together to reduce the risks from hazards such as non-potable water at work. A safe place of work benefits everyone. Read more about good work design and how you can create safe work.
As a worker, you have a responsibility under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 to take reasonable care for your own health and safety and for others who may be affected by what you do or don’t do. You must follow any reasonable health and safety instructions from your employer. You should use equipment properly, follow safe work policies and procedures and attend training. If something is unclear, or you are uncertain, ask for an explanation.
For employers or persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), it’s your duty to manage workplace risks, as outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
Following the four-step risk management process below will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws. You can also use the practical advice in the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).
Four steps to manage risk
Manage any risks posed by non-potable water by:
- doing a risk assessment that considers the likelihood and consequences of exposure
- putting suitable control measures in place
- maintaining and regularly reviewing the control measures.
The first step is to identify if your workers could be exposed to non-potable water.
- Inspect your business
Think about your workplace and note where your work environment or processes create risk of exposure to non-potable water.
- Talk to your workers
Talk to your workers to find out if they have any health and safety concerns. A confidential survey could give workers who are less likely to speak out in public a chance to provide feedback.
- Review available information
Read the relevant legislation and codes of practice. Research how other workplaces have managed non-potable water risks.
Find more information on how to identify risks in How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).
If you identify non-potable water, make a risk assessment to identify:
- if there is a risk to you or others
- whether any effective control measures are already in place
- what actions you could take to control the risk
- how urgently you should act.
A risk assessment can include looking at:
- the nature of the work and how this exposes workers and others
- whether the work is required or if it can be rescheduled to a time when the risk of exposure is reduced
- the frequency and duration of contact.
After assessing the risk, put control measures in place.
The hierarchy of control is a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. It ranks risk controls from the highest level of protection and reliability through to the lowest and least reliable protection. Implement control measures in this order:
- Level 1: Get rid of the harm and prevent the risk.
- Level 2: Replace the hazard with something less harmful, separate people from the hazard, or change work processes or the physical work environment.
- Level 3: Use administrative controls to reduce exposure (such as limiting time spent in a hazardous area) or use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect people from harm.
The person in control of the workplace must:
- obtain information on health hazards, precautions for use, recommended uses and testing data
- identify any hazards in the water (such as bacteria, viruses, chemicals and metals)
- assess any risks to people from the proposed use of the water
- control any risks to people from exposure to the water (accidental drinking, inhaling droplets or becoming drenched)
- control any risk of water deteriorating under storage
- evaluate the effectiveness of controls by supervising control strategies and testing the water periodically.
Have a licensed plumber install the non-potable water infrastructure to avoid cross-connection between potable and non-potable supplies. Identify non-potable water so it can be easily distinguished from potable water supplies. Use colour coding (lilac/purple) or signage (such as ‘Water not suitable for drinking’).
Notify Workplace Health and Safety Queensland of an incident that involves the use of non-potable water in the workplace.
Risk management is an ongoing process. Check regularly to make sure the control measures are working. If you find problems, go through the steps again, review the information and decide whether you need new controls.
Under the work health and safety laws you must review the controls:
- when you become aware that a control measure is not working effectively
- before a change that might create a new risk
- when you find a new hazard or risk
- when your workers tell you that a review is needed
- after a health and safety representative requests a review.
You can find a list to help you find any issues in the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).
Standards and compliance
Work Health and Safety Act 2011
Codes of practice
How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB)
Managing the work environment and facilities code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.57 MB)
Australian Drinking Water Guidelines Paper 6 National Water Quality Management Strategy. National Health and Medical Research Council, National Resource Management Ministerial Council, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. Version 3.4, updated 2017.
Using non-potable water in your business. Business Queensland.
Water carriers: A guide for local government on general food safety and hygiene requirements. Queensland Health. September 2015.
Using non-reticulated water in a food business. Queensland Government.
Guidance on use of rainwater tanks. Australian Government Department of Health. 2010.