Every profession has its occupational hazards. Of course, the waste industry is no exception. After all, it’s considered a high-hazard industry, distinguished by a higher fatality rate than most. Fortunately, the waste industry’s safety numbers have improved over the years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5.2 cases per 100 workers of days away from work, job transfer or job restriction due to illness and injury in 2009 (the most recent statistics available), down from 6.4 in 2007.
While the widespread adoption of automated trucks has contributed to the improved numbers, it takes more than a few state-of-the-art trucks to achieve good safety statistics. Companies need to take continuous control measures to maintain reasonable workers compensation and health insurance rates, lost work time and worker replacement expenses. Attention to safety precautions can’t be overlooked, especially when performing the simplest tasks. That’s because the more expensive workplace injuries result not from accidents but from routine activities like lifting and pushing, which are still the leading causes of on-the-job injuries in the waste industry.
Back injuries, which often are the result of improper lifting, are one of the most prevalent and costly work-related injuries in the United States, averaging nearly $8,500 per workers compensation claim, approximately double the cost of the average injury claim. Back injuries cost U.S. businesses between $50 and $100 billion per year. Implementing practical ergonomic solutions to help employees prevent back injuries can save companies time and money with surprisingly little investment.
Reducing safety risks starts with taking a practical look at the way your workers do their jobs. Through an ergonomics task analysis, companies are able to examine how tasks are performed and determine the actions that put unnecessary stress on tendons, joints, nerves or muscles and then result in injuries. How does an employee pick up a trashcan? How long is a driver required to sit for any given period of time? Each risk factor is then evaluated to determine the changes in equipment, materials or environment needed to reduce the stressors. Among the problem areas pinpointed by ergonomic analysis:
Excessive Repetitiveness: An employee’s risk of developing an ergonomic disorder, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, increases as the repetitiveness of a task increases.
Overexertion: The excessive use of energy to perform a task can lead to back problems. The speed with which an employee moves arms, wrists and fingers also can be an indicator of potential ergonomic stress.
Static Loading: Sitting in one position for a long period of time is an example of static loading. Extended work periods can increase the risk of cumulative trauma disorders.
Bad Posture: Extreme deviations from neutral body posture increase safety risks.
The Wrong Equipment: The right equipment may mean adjustable seating, footstools, tools with longer handles, floor mats, back belts or other materials depending on the workplace and what’s required of its workforce.
Too Little Training: It’s important to educate and remind employees about proper lifting methods, posture and even the importance of taking some time away from a task.
Since many collection tasks rely on customers and how they place their trash for pick up, customer education is another strategy for a safer workplace. Educating customers through flyers outlining your efforts to prevent employee injuries may encourage customers to improve their disposal practices. Additionally, some companies offer their customers trash containers designed for a more ideal collection system. These containers have handles specially designed for better grasping to encourage power grips and neutral wrist positions. Another strategy to reduce employees’ bending and lifting activities is to promote bulk recycling pickup. This typically requires a bigger collection can, which requires less bending or mechanical lifting during pickup.
Many waste companies are finding new and creative ways to improve their operational efficiencies and, in turn, provide a safer work environment. Declining injury statistics speak to the industry’s success. To continue this progress and avoid financial losses that can impact the bottom line, the waste industry can’t afford to rest on its laurels. Instead, ergonomic safety through education, communication and training needs to become a habit.
Practical Solutions to Minimize Cumulative Trauma Disorder (CTD)
- Increase the variety of job tasks an employee performs
- Automate a task wherever possible
- Rotate jobs
- Require employees to take a break
- Perform medical monitoring to uncover a possible CTD condition early
- Keep tools at a low weight
- Supply tools with appropriate (usually longer length) handles
- Keep cutting edges sharp
- Use power grip where possible
- Supply appropriate, adjustable seating
- Provide platforms and mats to cushion standing
- Angle the work surface appropriately
- Place tools and materials between employees’ shoulders and waists
- Design workstations appropriately
- Establish exercise programs
- Encourage breaks to change position, walk around, etc.
XL Specialty Insurance Company