Safety First: No Rest for the Wary

You can't take a vacation from safety.

It's August, which means many of you have recently taken or are about to go on a vacation — perhaps to a national park, the beach or the mountains, or maybe to another country. A welcome chance to get away from the daily grind and recharge your batteries.

I was lucky enough to get away for a week of vacation the last week of June. However, my attempt to get into vacation mode was interrupted early on the second day, when I learned about a terrible accident at a transfer station in Queens, New York. While cleaning out a dry well, two contractors and one transfer station employee were killed.

Based on the numerous newspaper articles about this tragic event, it appears the contractor did not make much of an effort to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) confined space regulations. After one contractor passed out at the bottom of the 18-foot-deep well, his supervisor — his father — tried to rescue him. Neither man had respiratory protection. When the father passed out, a transfer station employee tried to rescue both of them, and also was killed in that effort.

Several National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) members who heard about the accident contacted me about it that day. During the remainder of the week, several waste and recycling companies, representatives from OSHA and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the media and others called or e-mailed me about the accident.

Later that week, I found out that on the same day of the Queens accident, garbage trucks in New York and Florida overturned on top of cars, killing the driver of each car. When I returned to the office, I learned there had been three additional waste-related fatalities during the week — one in California (a 76-year-old bicyclist), another in North Carolina (an 80-year-old driver), and a third in Texas (a 56-year-old passenger in an SUV that crashed into the back of a stopped truck).

I had difficulty getting back into vacation mode after learning about and responding to inquiries concerning the Queens transfer station accident, and any lingering vacation-related relaxation was quickly eliminated as I learned about these other fatal accidents.

Everyone at solid waste companies and municipal sanitation departments is, in some way, responsible for operational safety. It isn't just up to the safety manager to enforce safety rules — it's the responsibility of every manager, supervisor and employee to be knowledgeable about and follow these important rules, and to point out when they are being violated. The safety manager can't be everywhere, no matter how hard he or she tries.

Many employers don't have a full-time safety person. When you take vacation, whom do you deputize to make sure that applicable safety rules — including compliance with OSHA regulations — are being followed? Who makes sure that route observations are being performed properly? Who makes sure that pre- and post-trip inspections are being completed? Who analyzes the injury reports or loss runs? Who conducts the accident investigations?

We all need vacations. In fact, I think I need another one. But safety does not take a vacation.

With the many potential hazards faced by the solid waste industry and increased scrutiny from OSHA — which includes a new regional emphasis program in the southeastern United States — we can't afford to drop our focus on operational safety and regulatory compliance for even one hour, let alone a week. The men and women who died in late June and early July are a tragic reminder of this basic fact.

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David Biderman is general counsel for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. He oversees the organization's safety programs.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at [email protected].