Last month, I spoke at a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) symposium on worker safety. In August, I am speaking about worker safety at the Solid Waste Association of North America’s WASTECON event in Nashville. The NIOSH symposium attendees were very interested in the progress being made toward reducing fatality and injury rates for solid waste workers, and in partnering with the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) to help spread key safety messages. I look forward to seeing if WASTECON attendees share that enthusiasm.
There will be no shortage of opportunities. WASTECON will host two excellent back-to-back safety sessions, featuring speakers from NIOSH, Waste Management, Waste Connections and Rumpke as well as several consultants. The first session will focus on collection-related safety issues, while the second will address safety issues at transfer stations, recycling facilities and landfills. I hope many WASTECON attendees come to these sessions, which will provide a lot of information about industry safety trends and many useful tips and tools for reducing accidents and injuries. A similar safety session at WasteExpo in Dallas attracted well over 100 attendees.
Reducing accidents and injuries should be a high priority goal for all managers and directors – in both the public and private sectors. Sadly, recent events suggest an uneven playing field. Last year’s federal safety data revealed local government solid waste employees have a much higher incidence rate than their private sector brethren. As such, Nashville-bound public works managers and other municipal personnel responsible for waste collection and disposal should make a point of attending these sessions.
In June, a driver for an Arkansas waste management district was struck and killed by a freight train. Last month, a driver for a New England waste hauler was struck and killed by an Amtrak train in Maine. In both accidents, the drivers were apparently trying to beat the train or were driving too fast to avoid crossing into the train’s path. Although many accidents involving solid waste collection vehicles are clearly due a third-party (motorist, pedestrian, bicyclist), it is difficult to explain these accidents as anything other than the drivers’ fault.
Also in July, the public works department of a sizeable city released a written audit reviewing that department’s performance, including safety. I really hope that department, which employs more than 200 workers in its solid waste division, requires several managers to attend the WASTECON safety sessions. According to the audit, the department’s employees had an injury and illness rate of 40 per 100 full-time workers. That is more than six times the national industry average and, candidly, is the highest injury rate I have seen in nearly a decade for any solid waste-related employer.
The audit also noted that worker’s compensation costs in the department were very high, with over $2.9 million in auto liability and workers comp claims in 2010. As stated in the audit, “significantly more support for safety from all levels of management, along with additional buy-in and commitment from front line employees, is needed.” The audit includes numerous recommendations for achieving that laudable goal.
I hope this department’s leadership takes the difficult but necessary steps to change the department’s safety culture. The Environmental Industry Associations and NSWMA want to help the department and others make those changes. Even a single fatal workplace accident is one too many.