Safety First: In the Rear-View Mirror

With 2010 winding down, it's time to prepare for the safety challenges ahead.

We recently finished the Thanksgiving leftovers, and my children and I are looking forward to a relaxing winter break. As 2010 winds down, it is an appropriate time to look back at the past year and highlight some key events and trends, and to prepare for the safety challenges in the upcoming year.

Although 2010 was the year the “Great Recession” ended, it was hard to tell at many solid waste and recycling companies. Volumes were down for much of the year and have only recently started to increase in certain parts of the country.

The reduced economic activity likely contributed to the federal government’s report that waste industry fatalities declined significantly last year, although the decline for the waste industry was far greater in percentage terms than the overall reduction for all employees. Clearly, the waste industry is getting safer, with many companies making safety a core value and placing operational safety at the top of their “to-do” lists. These improvements include a 35 percent reduction in reported injuries or illnesses over the past six years.

While the private sector’s numbers have improved, a November 2010 data release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) revealed local government employees have a much higher incidence rate than their peers in the private sector. This is especially true for waste and recycling collection employees. According to BLS, local government collection employees have an incidence rate that is more than four times higher than the private hauler employees. This disparity far exceeds the difference in rates for most other occupations.

In addition, when a collection employee is injured or suffers an illness as a result of a workplace accident, a public sector employee is out, on average, three days longer than his private sector peer. Understanding the reasons for these disparities and addressing them should be a key focus for municipal solid waste managers in 2011.

One of the key hazards facing all collection employees is being struck by a motorist. Unfortunately, the frequency of these accidents appears to have increased in 2010. At least six waste collection employees were killed this year in such accidents, and several motorists died crashing into our trucks.

With motorists texting and using their cell phone with increased frequency, this hazard is unlikely to go away in the near future, despite many states enacting anti-texting laws over the past few years. In response, NSWMA is partnering with the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to develop a Slow Down to Get Around “bill stuffer” to educate motorists about this issue, and many NSWMA members will be distributing it to their customers in 2011. If you are interested in participating in this effort, contact me.

The past year also has seen increased enforcement and regulatory activity at the two principal federal agencies that regulate safety — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). During 2010, OSHA has proposed several new regulations and changed its enforcement penalty structure to increase fines, and is expected to finalize its revisions to the fall protection and hazard communication standards by mid-2011.

DOT is expected to roll out its Comprehensive Safety Analysis (CSA) 2010 program this month, which will affect all motor carriers, including waste haulers. DOT also is expected to propose changes to the hours of service regulations in response to a settlement agreement, and rumor has it that the 11-hour day established in 2003 by these regulations may be in jeopardy. DOT also has been active on the distracted driving issue, issuing a federal rule prohibiting truckers from texting while operating in interstate commerce.

As the year comes to an end, it is important to recharge your batteries and prepare for the challenges of the upcoming year. As you do so, make sure safety is one of the challenges you focus on in 2011.

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].

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