Safety First: We're All in This Together

The public and private sectors must work together to improve industry safety.

Safe waste collection, processing and disposal operations are critical to the long-term success of your company or municipal department. It does not matter whether you are a one-truck hauler in Alaska, a national company with operations in all 50 states, or a local-government-owned landfill — you want the men and women who work for you to get home to their families every day without a work-related injury or illness, and without causing an accident involving a third-party.

This makes reducing fatalities, accidents and injuries a “non-partisan” goal (can you tell I've been in Washington too long?). An increasing percentage of the attendees at the National Solid Wastes Management Association's (NSWMA) safety programs and a large proportion of the users of NSWMA's “Be Safe, Be Proud” videos and “Slow Down to Get Around” stickers are local governments. This is terrific, and it reflects the public sector's focus on reducing accidents and injuries.

However, how the private sector and the public sector address compliance issues can sometimes differ. Under federal law, a local governmental employer cannot be fined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for violating its voluminous regulations and standards governing workplace safety. These rules are going to get tougher and be more stringently enforced over the next few years under President Obama. Workplace safety laws apply to governmental workers in only some states, though legislation has been introduced in Congress to extend OSHA's jurisdiction to include the public sector.

A few years ago, a number of sanitation departments in Westchester County, N.Y., asked me to provide safety training to their employees. The level of knowledge concerning basic concepts such as lock-out tag out or confined space was minimal. Most workers admitted they did not wear high-visibility apparel, and many local governments' official shirts were dark blue — precisely the wrong color for residential collection employees working early in the morning on narrow suburban streets!

When NSWMA developed a safety video for transfer stations a few years ago, we shot the video over several days at a transfer station in Atlanta. The different behavior exhibited by some local governments' collection crews compared to the private haulers was extraordinary. Most of the haulers' trucks had one driver, who was wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and a helper, who stayed in the truck while the load was dumped. Many of the municipal trucks had multiple helpers, who were not wearing PPE and, on several occasions, wandered around the transfer station.

Many local governments care about safety, and not all haulers have great safety programs. There are more than 100,000 garbage and recycling trucks on the road every day, and the number of fatalities and accidents involving private sector vehicles appears to outnumber those involving municipal sanitation departments. However, because there are not consistent reporting requirements for local governments, it is impossible to state definitively that one side of the industry is “safer” than the other. As I stated above, safety is a non-partisan issue. Both the private and public sector have improved in recent years, and we need to share best practices and work together to reduce fatalities, accidents and injuries involving your employees, vehicles and equipment.

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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].