Safety First

A Mighty Wind

Change has come to the solid waste industry. Actually, it has come in many ways but I’m not talking about single-stream recycling, natural gas-fueled garbage trucks or conversion technologies right now. I’m talking about workplace safety.

At WasteExpo, a speaker from the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that there were 43 worker fatalities in the private sector solid waste industry in 2009, a dramatic decline from 2008’s total of 71. The fatality and injury rates for solid waste industry employees began a steady decline about a decade ago; the recent NIOSH numbers constitute an acceleration of that trend.

The NIOSH data likely reflects a number of factors, including a positive change in the safety culture at many employers (in particular, the large national companies), better communication between management and front-line workers, and the increased use of automated collection vehicles and safety-related equipment (e.g., cameras, event recorders). NIOSH intends to publish a fact sheet concerning these recent safety improvements later this year.

The growing emphasis on safety is manifesting itself in many ways. At the recent WasteExpo, one of the best attended educational sessions was “Visual Communication – Strategies for Improving Workplace Safety,” with more than 100 attendees. (If you missed it, it’s available here.) Dozens of companies and municipal officials came to the NSWMA-WASTEC booth for information about safety videos and ANSI standards. We receive e-mails and phone calls on a regular basis from members and others asking for information ranging from content for their safety meetings to assistance responding to an OSHA inspection. A growing number of companies and local governments are participating in the “Slow Down to Get Around” campaign and have placed stickers on their trucks or will be distributing a NIOSH-NSWMA flyer to their customers reminding them to drive more cautiously around garbage and recycling trucks (the flyer is here).

The challenge is to push these cultural changes deeper within the industry, all the way down to the one- to 10-truck haulers and smaller local governments. Nothing is more important than making sure every worker in the industry goes home to his or her family every day with all 10 fingers and all 10 toes. A healthy employee usually means a productive employee, and productive workers tend to make waste operations more efficient and profitable.   

If we can educate everyone about the procedures and equipment that are necessary to keep employees safe, the downward trends reported by NIOSH will continue. This may be difficult, as smaller waste haulers usually are not members of EIA, NSWMA, SWANA or any local solid waste association, and often are resistant to change. Sadly, several of these small waste or recycling companies experienced worker fatalities last month. Hopefully, these tragic events will serve as a wake-up call for them to focus more attention and resources to worker safety.

The winds of change are blowing through the solid waste industry. Do you want the wind in your face, or at your back?

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