A new study on recycling workers and safety states that they are more than twice as likely to get injured at work as the average worker, and the report provides suggestions on how to improve worker conditions.
The report, “Safe and Sustainable Recycling,” points out that 17 recycling workers died on the job from 2011 to 2013. The study was issued by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health; the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA); and the Partnership for Working Families. It also included contributions from the University of Illinois; Chicago Hospital and Health Sciences System; and Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH).
Here are 10 highlights from the report, as well as responses from two of the industry's primary associations.
- The authors recommend that city governments evaluate recycling companies’ health and safety records and require that they have safety programs.
- The recycling industry should stop using temporary workers. They have fewer workplace protections and less likely to be informed of their legal rights to a safe workplace, the authors contend.
- Cities should enact strong community education programs to promote greater household separate of waste to minimize the amount of dangerous contaminants reaching recycling operations.
- The report notes that unionized workers enjoy legally mandated health and safety protections through negotiated contracts. They also have the ability to bargain for additional safeguards.
- For the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), Janice Comer Bradley, senior vice president of programs, says in an interview, "Across the industry you will get wholehearted acknowledgement that the hazards are real, and that the industry has a solid understanding of what they are. ... Then we can really get to establishing an effective intervention industrywide."
- David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and longtime industry safety advocate, responded about the report in an e-mail. “SWANA shares many of the concerns raised by the GAIA report,” he says. “Too many recycling workers are being killed or injured in the workplace. Local governments, working with EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and our partners in the private sector, need to improve and expand our communications and educational efforts regarding recycling. It’s not just about keeping dangerous items like needles out of the waste stream, though clearly that is important, but reminding people what is supposed to go in each container.” But he points out that some of the recommendations, such as replacing temporary workers with full-time union employees, will increase costs in many cases at a time when recycling is under financial stress. “To have a truly sustainable materials management system in North America, we need to make sure that all stakeholders understand the cost of creating and operating that system, and how to cover those costs.”
- The report lists the top nine hazards recycling workers face. The top dangers: Risk of being struck by vehicles, falling bales or materials; working with moving machinery; and exposure to dangerous materials.
- Municipal governments can improve recycling worker health and safety by pursuing partnerships with the recycling industry. The report’s recommended best practices for municipalities include evaluating potential contractors, lessees and franchisees based on their health and safety practices; require them to submit a written Illness and Injury Prevention Program (I2P2); and require them to abate Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations.
- The report notes economic and climate benefits from expanding recycling nationally. Climate benefits could equate to shutting down one-fifth of U.S. coal power plants and sustaining 2.3 million jobs. That’s more than 10 times the number of jobs than from sending the material to incinerators or landfills, the groups said.
- Since the report went to press, a recycling worker was crushed to death in a compactor in Orlando, Fla. "Recycling is the right thing to do, but we have to do it the right way," said Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. "That means educating and empowering recycling workers, and using proven prevention strategies, which we know will reduce exposure to hazardous conditions. That’s how we can avoid tragedies like the death of a recycling worker just last week in Florida.”