Safety First

A Deadly December

Last month was an unusually busy one here in Washington, D.C. The lame duck Congress passed a whole bunch of legislation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published its updated regulatory agenda, which includes several significant rulemakings that will impact solid waste collection and disposal operations. The Department of Transportation implemented its Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program nationwide after pilot testing it in a few states over the past few years, proposed restrictions on hand held cell phone use by truck drivers, and proposed revisions to the Hours of Service rules governing truck drivers.

Unfortunately, it also was an unusually busy month for safety incidents in our industry. There were at least 15 fatal accidents in December 2010 involving solid waste workers or vehicles — more than any other month last year. In many families, the holidays were ruined because of a collision with a garbage truck.

While reviewing these fatalities, several recurring themes become apparent. First, most of the worker fatalities involved collection employees at small companies. Second, these employees died in certain types of accidents: a truck backed into a helper (Pennsylvania); a driver not wearing a safety belt was killed in a collision with a car (Louisiana); a helper was struck by a motorist (Alabama). Similar backing and rear-end collisions resulted in the deaths of other drivers and pedestrians.

One of these accidents received substantial media attention. On Dec. 7, a garbage truck was heading north in New York City but went past a commercial stop. The truck backed up and struck a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The pedestrian was wearing headphones and never heard the truck’s back-up alarm, and the driver of the truck never saw the 21-year-old in his mirror. The body was left on Madison Avenue for several hours while various city agencies conducted their investigation. This blocked traffic on a busy Manhattan street and attracted additional attention to this incident.

The New York City accident highlights a growing trend that all solid waste companies and local sanitation departments need to face: many drivers and pedestrians simply do not see or hear the garbage/recycling trucks around them. Young people are often “plugged in” to their various devices, and are texting when driving or walking. If you have teenagers, you know what I mean.

The substantial number of motorists who were killed last year when they crossed a center line or turned in front of a moving garbage/recycling truck is probably attributable, in part, to distracted drivers. Drivers of all ages occasionally drive into the back of stopped garbage trucks, often with fatal consequences. Some older people may be hard of hearing and do not hear the backing truck until it is too late. With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 years old every day, this problem is only going to get worse in future years.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. One of my goals in 2011 is to reach more employees at the thousands of small haulers and municipal sanitation departments who do not receive the National Solid Wastes Management Association’s (NSWMA) or Waste Equipment Technology Association’s (WASTEC) safety materials or standards. One of your goals should be to help educate your front-line workers that other drivers and pedestrians may be blissfully unaware of the 20-ton garbage truck in their path, and to always drive cautiously and defensively. This is not always easy, given productivity goals, but the alternative is another month like December 2010. Help make 2011 a safer year for your workers and the communities you serve.

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