Safety First: Ending on a Good Note

As a tough year winds down, industry receives some positive news about safety.

It's been a tough year to own a solid waste company. Volumes are down, particularly in roll-off work and in certain hard hit parts of the country, such as Michigan. Fuel prices are creeping upward again, and state tip fee taxes are on the rise as states struggle with historic budget deficits.

However, two pieces of good news about the recent safety performance of the industry have been released by the U.S. Department of Labor. In early November, the department announced that the injury rate for both solid waste collection and landfill employees continued to decline in 2008. While the injury rate for solid waste collection workers decreased marginally to 7.4 from 7.5 per 100 full-time employees, it fell dramatically for landfill company workers: from 7.1 to 5.4, a 24 percent reduction.

Then, in late November, the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its industry-specific enforcement data for fiscal year 2009 (Oct. 1, 2008 through Sept. 30, 2009). The data shows a very substantial decline in OSHA citations issued to the solid waste industry during FY 2009. During that time, 295 OSHA citations were issued to employers in Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) Code 4953, which comprises the majority of the U.S. solid waste industry, and about $290,000 in penalties were assessed. This compares favorably with FY 2008, during which 445 citations were issued, and more than $333,000 in fines were assessed. As in previous years, violations of the Hazard Communication (29 CFR 1910.1200), Lockout-Tagout (29 CFR 1910.147) and Respiratory Protection (29 CFR 1910.134) standards were the most common citations issued to solid waste companies.

While many solid waste firms and their employees deserve a well-earned pat on the back for these significant safety improvements, the industry should by no means rest on its laurels. Despite these improvements, according to the data, there were about 12,000 recordable injuries to solid waste collection and landfill employees nationwide in 2008. The fatality rate for industry employees continues to be unacceptably high — particularly collection employees, whose fatality rate is the sixth highest in the United States.

In 2009, there has been a dramatic uptick in the number of fatal struck-by accidents, in which a helper behind the truck has been killed by a motorist (often because the motorist was texting or otherwise distracted). Also, there has been an increase in OSHA inspections during 2009, though it is not yet clear whether the additional OSHA visits reported by some of the National Solid Wastes Management Association's (NSWMA) members are leading to increased citations and fines. With OSHA receiving a larger enforcement budget in 2010, the number of inspections can be expected to increase, and employers are advised to review their operations accordingly.

With the end of the year approaching, it is a good time to be thankful for our health, family, friends and co-workers (most of them, anyway). All solid waste executives, managers, supervisors and employees — in both the public and private sectors — are urged to make the coming year a safer one than 2009, so the information reported by the federal government shows continuous improvement as this great industry strives to reduce the frequency of fatalities, accidents and injuries.

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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].