Safety First

Safety First: Safety by Sector

August. The dog days of summer. Back-to-school sales. WASTECON.

This month, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) is holding WASTECON, its annual trade show and conference, near Washington. Building on its safety sessions last year, WASTECON will include a “Health and Safety Series” consisting of two separate sessions intended to educate local government attendees and others about how to reduce fatalities, accidents and injuries, and improve OSHA compliance.

I hope they have overflow attendance. I recently reviewed the latest federal government data on the frequency of injuries and illnesses causing days away from work (DAFW) for employees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “refuse and recyclable material collectors” have a high DAFW rate, and the DAFW rate for local government employees is more than eight times higher than the private industry rate. (Go to Table 4). This difference is about twice as large as the margin reported by BLS the previous year between the private and public sector’s DAFW rate.

A number of theories may account for this sharp — and apparently growing — disparity between the private and public sector DAFW rates among solid waste collection workers. Some believe that the higher incidence of unionized employees in the public sector plays a role, though I have yet to see a study that compares safety performance between unionized and non-unionized workers in the solid waste industry. Others point to the difficulty that local governments have terminating employees. Still others note that sanitation departments are not subject to fines by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), or are more likely to have residential manual rear loaders, often with two helpers. And, there are some who believe that private sector employees do not always report all of their injuries.

While I think all of these factors may play a role, in my judgment, the fundamental difference in the structure of the private and public sectors in the waste industry is a significant contributor to the disparity in safety performance. The public sector includes thousands of small local governments, many of whom run fewer than ten trucks. These smaller entities typically do not have in-house safety expertise or the resources to get outside assistance to help them reduce accidents and injuries. In contrast, the private sector includes two “national” companies that together have more than 70,000 employees and three other very large companies – all of whom have very strong safety cultures and senior leadership and local managers that stress safety and compliance. Dozens of other private sector haulers, most of which are larger than all but a few municipal sanitation departments, operate similarly. These companies, which employee a majority of the private sector’s collection employees, contribute to the private sector’s lower DAFW rate.

I hope that WASTECON attendees participate in the Health and Safety Series. More importantly, I hope they and others – at both municipal sanitation departments and hauling companies – focus on reducing accidents and injuries to their employees, and seek assistance from associations and industry experts interested in helping them achieve that objective. For example, while NSWMA represents private sector waste companies, we make our safety resources available to any public sector entity interested in learning the best practices that the private sector has employed to drastically reduce the accident and injury rates among its employees.

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