During the past few years, both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have had programs and workshops emphasizing that “green” jobs need to be safe. While much of the focus has been on workplace safety hazards associated with the construction of 300-foot-tall wind turbines and the installation of solar panels on the roofs of buildings, the number of worker fatalities at recycling and composting facilities last year warrants attention.
In 2011, there were at least 12 occupational fatalities at recycling or composting facilities in the United States, more than double the number of fatalities in the previous year. This was more than twice as high as the number of employee deaths last year at U.S. landfills and transfer stations combined, and represents nearly a third of all the worker fatalities for the entire solid waste industry.
A review of the accidents reveals familiar patterns. The majority took place at small companies that operate a single facility. In most of these accidents, workers failed to comply with lockout tagout (LOTO) or confined space rules, or were pinned against a truck or a wall by a vehicle. For example, in October 2011, two workers died from asphyxiation while cleaning out a drainage tunnel at a California composting facility. This incident, which has received national media attention, resulted in the temporary closure of the site, multiple hearings and a $2.3 million fine.
OSHA imposed substantial fines in response to many of these incidents. Following a June 2011 fatality at a Missouri recycling facility, in which a worker died while clearing a cardboard jam in a compactor, OSHA issued 37 citations and fined the company $195,930. After a worker was killed by falling plastic inside a baler in April 2011 at a recycling facility near Seattle, OSHA fined the company $63,000. In December, a worker was killed when three bales fell on him at a Pennsylvania recycling facility. According to the press, a similar incident occurred at the same facility in 1997, and OSHA is investigating this accident.
Many customers are interested in diverting more waste material away from landfills and incinerators to recycling and composting facilities, for both economic and environmental reasons. Many solid waste companies are eager to service these accounts, proudly embodying the principles of NSWMA’s “Environmentalists. Every Day.” program. Worker safety should not be overlooked in these efforts.
When the industry constructs new single-stream material recovery facilities (MRFs) and expands composting programs, it needs to maximize worker safety, not just efficiency and revenue.
Employees at smaller companies appear particularly vulnerable. Employers should perform a job hazard assessment to ensure that workers are not being placed in harm’s way. MRF employees should be trained on LOTO, and be observed by supervisors to ensure they are following their training.
The updates to WASTEC’s Z245.41 ANSI standard for MRFs and the EIA Safety Manual, both of which will be finalized later this year, will provide critical guidance to employers and employees on identifying and addressing hazards at recycling facilities. Based on the events of 2011, they should be required reading for managers, supervisors and employees.