Safety First: It Takes a Village

You are your brother's keeper when it comes to safety.

Health care reform has been a major topic of conversation throughout the United States recently, particularly here in Washington, D.C. Even after passing Congress, the issue remains a polarizing one. Following the bill's passage, some of my Facebook friends lamented “ObamaCare” as part of our country's continued decline into socialism. In their view, providing health care coverage to those who cannot afford it is somehow morally wrong.

That got me thinking. Do some of us in the solid waste industry have a responsibility to teach others in the industry about how to drive their trucks more safely or to lift containers properly? I don't mean trade associations such as the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) or the Oregon Resource Recovery Association (ORRA). Do larger companies in the industry have a responsibility to — or would they benefit from — sharing some of their best practices and information on reducing fatalities, accidents and injuries with smaller haulers?

Perhaps such sharing might have prevented the horrible accident that occurred in Phoenix on March 25. A dump truck driver who had just emptied his load at a transfer station drove into a group of motorcyclists who were waiting for a light to change. Four bikers were killed, and six others, including a Phoenix police chief, were injured. Some of the bikers' bodies were dragged 60 feet under the truck.

According to several of the media reports about the accident (which got national press attention), the driver admitted he was distracted by “paperwork.” The driver worked for a small hauling company that does not have a safety manager, and, in all likelihood, does not have much of a safety program beyond an occasional “don't get in an accident.”

The driver probably knew, on some level, that looking at paperwork while he was driving was dangerous, the same way that people who talk on cell phones or text while driving know that they are risking a tragic accident. Perhaps if the driver had received training on distracted driving hazards, this accident could have been avoided.

Why would a large company have an interest in providing safety training to a small hauler who might be a competitor? First, although this accident involved a single hauler, it negatively affects the image of the entire solid waste industry, and suggests to our customers and elected officials that we are an industry prone to accidents. Second, these types of preventable accidents give federal agencies such as OSHA and DOT more ammunition to go after us through targeted enforcement actions. As if we need more attention from OSHA! Third, this driver could have just as easily been distracted at a large company's transfer station or landfill, placing that disposal facility's workers at risk.

Many of the small haulers and local governments who make up the majority of the solid waste industry lack the safety expertise and resources that most larger companies and many municipalities possess. The data shows that they are involved in a disproportionate number of the industry's fatal accidents. We need to do a better job of educating them about how to do their work safely and why they need to do so. Such information sharing already occurs to some extent through WASTEC's ANSI safety subcommittees and NSWMA's safety seminars. You can help by reaching out to your competitors and customers, and encouraging them to take advantage of industry safety training programs and materials. Working together, we can make our industry safer.

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].

Related Stories