Out of Harm's Way

Out of Harm's Way

Route analysis and sound safety programs can greatly reduce vehicle accidents during residential collection.

As with all aspects of waste operations, residential refuse and recycling collection routes present their own set of safety challenges. In addition to protecting employees from injuries, waste companies and municipal sanitation departments must be proactive in preventing costly vehicle accidents.

A safe collection route begins with good route design and a route hazard analysis. A well-designed collection route can reduce or eliminate the need for trucks to make maneuvers that lead to accidents.

The ideal residential route minimizes the need for a truck to do any backing, or to make unprotected left turns or u-turns. These maneuvers tend increase the likelihood of an accident. Additionally, a well-designed route will take into consideration local traffic patterns and will avoid school zones when school is beginning or letting out.

Each residential route has its unique hazards with which to contend. Ideally, a supervisor, who has been trained in route hazard analysis, will travel each collection route a number of times to identify specific hazards. These hazards may include tough intersections, situations requiring backing, blind corners, dead-end streets or areas with heavy pedestrian traffic. Armed with the information from the analysis, adjustments can be made as to how and when the route will be driven. Even in situations in which all of the desirable changes to the route are not feasible, the supervisor still will be able to caution drivers about portions of their routes where extra caution will be necessary.

A recent study by Mattei Insurance Services Inc. identified a number of vehicle maneuvers and driver actions taken by drivers that tend to lead to accidents during waste collection. A more in-depth look revealed that three of these maneuvers/actions are factors in more than half of collection accidents. The three are: backing; keeping an unsafe following distance; and the truck driver becoming distracted. Getting a handle on these three issues will go a long way toward reducing accidents during residential collection.

Conventional wisdom says that 25 percent of all vehicle accidents in waste industry are due to backing, and the recent study by Mattei seems to confirm that figure. Such accidents during residential collection usually involve backing into parked vehicles or fixed objects such as utility poles.

However, the possibility of a catastrophic backing accident always exists, especially when pedestrians or collection workers are in the path of a truck. In two accidents in February, helpers in Ohio and Connecticut were killed when their trucks backed over them. The Ohio incident involved a municipal worker while the Connecticut accident involved a small hauler.

Designing residential routes to minimize the need for backing is crucial. However, since a certain amount of backing may still be necessary, it is important for a waste firm or sanitation department to have clearly established policies and rules for backing. These rules should require the use of a spotter when the route has more than one worker, should strictly prohibit workers from riding on the steps while a truck is backing, and should require the driver to stop immediately should he or she lose sight of the spotter.

Policies and rules are only as good as their enforcement. Route supervisors should perform regular and thorough observations of collection operations to ensure that safety polices are being followed. Training should take place for both drivers and helpers on how to safely and effectively spot a backing truck and on the proper use of hand signals. For one-person collection routes, where a spotter is not available, a backing camera can add an extra degree of safety. Also, a working backing alarm is a must for all waste collection vehicles.

Keep Your Distance

The second major factor leading to vehicle accidents in the waste industry is an unsafe following distance. Following too closely to the vehicle in front is the leading cause of rear-end accidents. Following distance also is a factor in sideswipe accidents, ran-off-the-road accidents and head-on collisions, particularly when the waste truck driver swerves to avoid a rear-end accident.

When a waste truck rear-ends another vehicle, the results can be devastating. In early May, a municipal driver in southern Indiana allegedly failed to notice that traffic on the road had stopped due to a construction zone. He drove into the back of a car, which was pushed into a flatbed truck carrying steel. The 19-year-old motorist in the car was killed, and according to published reports, the driver has been placed on leave following the accident. In terms of claims dollars paid out, rear-end accidents are consistently among the most expensive, the Mattei study found.

All waste companies and municipal sanitation departments should have clear rules regarding safe following distance. A minimum of four seconds of following distance should be used under ideal conditions. Additional seconds of following distance should be added during periods of inclimate weather or when it is dark.

While a rear-end accident can occur anywhere along a residential collection route, travel to a landfill or transfer station is of special concern. A fully loaded waste truck, whose brakes already have made hundreds of stops that day, generally will take longer to stop, and additional seconds of following distance should be employed by the driver.

As with rules regarding backing, route supervisors should make regular observations of drivers to ensure that safe following distances are being maintained. A program of initial training and on-going safety meetings should be used to reinforce the waste company's following distance polices.

Distracted driving is a momentous problem in society as a whole, and thus it is no surprise that distraction is the third major factor in waste industry vehicle accidents, according to the Mattei study. Distraction was shown to be a factor in rear-end, intersection, ran-off-the-road, backing and numerous other accident types in the industry. Earlier this year, a driver at a small hauler in Arizona drove into a group of motorcyclists waiting for a traffic light to turn green, killing four of them and injuring several others. The driver reportedly said he was distracted by "paperwork" in the cab.

Distractions can take many forms. They may include the use of cell phones or two-way radios, sending or receiving text messages, looking at paperwork or maps, or eating or drinking behind the wheel. Essentially, any physical or mental task that takes the driver's attention away from safely operating the truck can lead to an accident.

The federal Department of Transportation recently banned commercial drivers from texting while behind the wheel. While this rule is a good start, waste companies and municipal sanitation departments should have their own sets of rules regarding distractions. Many employers already prohibit the use of private cell phones while driving, and others have developed additional rules regarding what types of activities are prohibited in the truck cabs. Again, regular observations by route supervisors are essential to ensure that rules regarding distractions are being followed.

Anytime a residential collection truck hits the streets, there is always the possibility of an accident. However, by understanding the leading causes of accidents and by taking steps to mitigate those risks, waste companies and municipal sanitation departments can greatly increase the likelihood of an accident-free workday.

David Biderman is general counsel for the National Solid Wastes Management Association and oversees the organization's safety programs. Bruce Hooker is a loss control manager at Mattei Insurance Services in Chicago.

Related Stories