Safety in Numbers

Injury statistics show the industry’s focus on safety is paying off, but fatality numbers are still unacceptably high.

A Fender Bender in Texas. A helper injured in Pennsylvania when he falls off a riding step. A burning load in California. A motorist killed when he crashes into the back of a stopped garbage truck in Georgia.

Preventing fatalities, accidents and injuries involving solid waste vehicles and employees is a tough job, given the difficult working conditions of waste collection. The good news is that, by some measures, workplace safety in the solid waste industry is improving. However, statistics also show that handling trash remains a dangerous and often deadly occupation.

Although companies measure their safety performance using different metrics, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) uses a simple formula: the total recordable injury and illness rate. For all employees in the United States, the average total recordable injury and illness rate in 2006 was 4.4 per 100 full-time employees. This rate has slowly declined over the past decade.

The national injury and illness rate for the solid waste industry has decreased by about 8 percent each year since 2003. During that year, the injury rate for employees in Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) Code 4953, which includes most of the solid waste industry, was 8.3 per 100 employees. By 2006, the most recent year for which industry-specific data is available, the national injury rate for the new North American Industry Classification System (NAISC) Code 562 — which has replaced the SIC system — had declined to 6.5.

This steady and substantial decrease over the past few years likely is due to a number of factors. First, an increasing number of haulers and local governments are replacing manual rear-load waste collection vehicles with semi- and fully automated trucks. Many users of the vehicles say the trucks lead to a sharp reduction in injuries because the physical demands placed on workers — lifting heavy or oversized waste containers, stepping on and off trucks, and dodging other vehicles — are reduced.

Second, many solid waste companies and local governments have placed a renewed emphasis on safety over the past decade. In addition to trying to reduce the number of workplace fatalities and injuries, they are looking to decrease the high costs of workers compensation, third-party personal injury and property damage claims, and litigation. The larger, national solid waste companies have developed sophisticated safety programs to reduce their injury rates and accident frequency.

“We have had seven consecutive years with improved safety performance, and Waste Management is on a ‘mission to zero’ [the name of the company's safety program] to continue to drive down those numbers,” says Bill Cole, president of Houston-based Waste Management's Safety Services. Similarly, Mike Lambert, corporate director of safety at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic Services, says safety is a core value at his company and notes that the firm's accident and injury frequency rates are declining.

Many smaller companies have increased their focus on safe operations as well, often with help from the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). Five years ago, NSWMA and the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF) obtained a grant from the federal Department of Labor to develop safety training tools for solid waste employers. NSWMA has developed four “Be Safe, Be Proud” videos as part of the grant program. Each video is 18 to 22 minutes in length, shows real solid waste workers and equipment, and uses humor, music and a storyline to hold the viewers' attention. NSWMA has sold more than 1,200 videos over the past four years, with a substantial number of them purchased by municipal sanitation departments.

In 2008, NSWMA has taken its safety program in a new direction with several initiatives. The association provided simulator-based driver training in March to nearly 350 solid waste drivers in 12 locations and expects to announce several more sessions shortly. The training, provided by MPRI, focused on decision-making, backing and space management. An educational session on the training was held at the 2008 WasteExpo in Chicago.

As part of its “Slow Down to Get Around” public relations campaign, which seeks to draw attention to the problem of waste collectors being struck by speeding, careless or distracted motorists, NSWMA has developed radio and television advertisements and is making truck decals available. The radio ads aired in 10 markets from January to February 2008, and in May, the association unveiled similar 30- and 60-second television ads, which were produced with support from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. NSWMA is encouraging private haulers and local governments to share copies of the ads, which can be accessed at, with local radio and television stations (see “Want a Copy?”).

NSWMA's “Slow Down to Get Around” campaign is based on a similar program developed by Rumpke in 2004 after two company employees were struck by cars within a single week (one employee was killed). Reducing “struck-by” accidents and evaluating the effectiveness of the “Slow Down to Get Around” program were recently included in a draft of a federal “action plan” for the waste industry developed by the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOSH).


In contrast to the declining injury rate, the number of solid waste industry fatalities remains stubbornly high. According to BLS, solid waste collection continues to have the fifth highest fatality rate in the United States — 40.7 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2006. The number of U.S. solid waste employee fatalities averages about 60 annually. In January alone, there were six solid waste workplace fatalities in Florida, Texas and New York.

Susan Eppes, president of Houston-based EST Solutions Inc., a safety consulting firm, is not surprised by the increasing disconnect between the declining injury rate and a flat fatality rate. “A decline in the frequency of accidents often correlates with a decline in severe accidents likely to involve a fatality,” Eppes says. “However, while it is no longer acceptable from a corporate perspective to have a high level of injuries, many workers continue to engage in risky behaviors because they don't believe a bad result will happen to them.” Eppes says ignoring lockout-tagout procedures and failing to wear a seatbelt are examples of these risky behaviors.

In addition to worker fatalities, there are dozens of fatal accidents each year in which a third-party — a motorist, pedestrian or bicyclist — is killed by a garbage truck. In many of these incidents, the third-party, often a motorist, is at fault, not the garbage truck driver. For example, a 53-year-old man lost control of his SUV on a snowy road in Porter, Ind., in January and crashed into an oncoming garbage truck. Similarly, a 31-year-old man rear-ended a garbage truck while merging onto an interstate highway in Alabama in early February. The motorist, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was killed in the crash.

More Work to be Done

Solid waste companies and local governments are not able to entirely prevent accidents involving solid waste collection vehicles. However, through an increased emphasis on safety and changing employee behavior, many companies are experiencing meaningful reductions in their fatality, accident and injury rates. With an average of nearly one fatality each week and the fifth highest fatality rate in the United States, the need for continued improvement is paramount.

David Biderman is general counsel for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. He oversees the association's safety programs. He can be reached at [email protected].


The National Solid Wastes Management Association is urging private waste firms and local governments to share copies of its “Slow Down to Get Around” radio and television ads with their local broadcast outlets. To receive a broadcast-quality copy of the ads, contact David Biderman at [email protected] or (202) 364-3743. To request “Slow Down to Get Around” decals to place on collection trucks, contact Niehaus at [email protected] or (859) 331-3733.

Additionally, information on how to purchase copies of the four “Be Safe, Be Proud” videos can be found at The series addresses the safety issues surrounding residential collection, landfills, transfer stations, and supervisors and route managers.