The grueling work of the waste industry — whether it takes place on a residential or commercial route, or at a transfer station, recycling center or landfill — is rife with the potential for harm. To make sure that employees minimize their risk of injuries, waste firms have implemented increasingly thorough safety education programs in recent years, and their efforts appear to be having some effect.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the nonfatal waste collection injury rate dropped from 9.8 per 100 full-time workers in 2004 to 8.5 in 2005, although the rate for workers involved in waste treatment and disposal (those that work at landfills, MRFs and transfer stations) rose slightly during the same period, from 6.9 to 7.3. Both rates dipped in 2004 when compared with the preceding year.
The number of annual fatalities in the solid waste industry has remained in the 50s for the past several years; however, for two years running, BLS has identified the refuse and recycling collection sector as having an elevated fatality rate, underscoring the risks faced by solid waste employees and the need for firms to aggressively educate them on workplace safety. (For more information on these statistics, see p. 42 in the October 2006 issue).
“Because many of the companies in the waste industry have been doing a better job of communicating about safety issues, the industry has seen a decline in injuries,” says David Biderman, general counsel for the National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA) and the organization's point man on worker safety issues. (For information about NSWMA's series of safety videos, see “Lights, Camera, Action!” on p. 29.)
While safety training is helpful to all companies, regardless of size, each firm handles it differently, depending on the company's needs. What follows is an overview of the safety programs of several waste firms.
E.L. Harvey & Sons
When workers are hired by Westboro, Mass.-based E.L. Harvey & Sons, Jerry Sjogren, the firm's safety director, presents them with a thick binder detailing 25 safety rules that they must become familiar with in order to stay on the job. The manual provides the firm's workers details on a whole range of safety issues, from the “lock-out, tag out” rules mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the performance of vehicle maintenance and various personal protection equipment (PPE) requirements. Employees also receive a pamphlet that contains a detailed checklist of the rules.
The company provides drivers with a separate manual covering safety issues that arise while on routes. Furthermore, trainers ride with new drivers for a period of four to six weeks “just to make sure that [the employees are] going to be safe with the public and themselves,” Sjogren says. The company also holds safety breakfasts during which concerns such as being aware of overhead wires and eye safety are addressed. Sjogren will even periodically bring in physical therapists to talk to employees about proper stretching techniques.
E.L. Harvey & Sons is adamant that personnel wear the proper PPE while on the job. “You're always trying to look for something to get people to want to wear this equipment,” he says. “You're dealing with these young kids who think they're not going to get hurt. You don't wise up until you're older.”
The on-the-job dress code includes hard hats when necessary and proper work boots. “In my opinion, sneakers have no business in this industry,” Sjogren says. Not only do proper boots reduce sprains and strains of the ankle, their thicker soles also minimize any puncture wounds. To ensure compliance with the policy, the company provides workers with a $70 voucher for boot purchases.
Sjogren says that he occasionally notices employees who are not wearing their safety goggles will immediately don the eye ware when they see him approaching. When this happens, Sjogren makes a point of asking them, “Why are you worried about me? I'm not going to poke you in the eye.”
To get drivers to wear PPE, Sjogren also emphasizes that an injury could result in the loss of their ability to drive commercially. “You'll be asking people if they want fries with that or [a] paper or plastic bag,” he tells them.
E.L. Harvey & Sons not only works to educate its workers about the safety issues revolving around the waste industry, but the public as well. The firm regularly provides videos and flyers from the U.S. Department of Transportation's “Don't Hang Out in the No-Zone” campaign to local driver education classes. The program teaches drivers the importance of avoiding the many blind spots surrounding trucks.
The safety training for this suburban Chicago hauler is similar to E.L. Harvey & Sons' in that much of it is done one on one. For instance, in the firm's recycling center, where employees are doing the same task over and over again, a “supervisor will observe them and make sure they're wearing proper equipment,” says Jane Dolezal, Homewood Disposal's safety and compliance manager. Supervisors also have a detailed checklist that they go over with each employee, covering issues such as whether or not the worker is getting on and off trucks properly.
The firm places a heavy emphasis on employees using proper ergonomic techniques when moving heavy bins or containers. “Don't just keep your legs straight and rely solely on your arms,” Dolezal says. “You want to be centered in front of whatever object you want to lift up and squat down so the majority of your lifting is on your legs. Your leg muscles are stronger than your back.” She adds that twisting when lifting can cause back strain and other injuries.
While there are exceptions, the safety rule of thumb at Homewood is to avoid pulling objects, which can put a lot of strain on a worker's shoulders.
One of the company's biggest safety challenges is that a driver and crew face different lifting issues at each stop. Of the company's 200 truck fleet, only about 15 percent are automated. On the rest of the routes, “[customers] can pretty much put out anything and everything,” Dolezal says.
The company holds monthly safety meetings during which recent injuries or incidents of property damage are discussed. “We review those and explain what could have been done to prevent the injuries from happening,” Dolezal says. “But almost monthly, we discuss safe lifting and how to prevent strains and muscle type injuries.”
A bigger company than either Homewood or E.L. Harvey & Sons, Cincinnati-based Rumpke's approach to worker safety reflects its larger size. In addition to working on an individual basis with new hires, the company also puts them through two and a half days of classroom training. On-the-job field training can take anywhere from three to five days to a month.
Becoming a trainer at Rumpke is not a plum position given to a well-liked long timer, but someone who can articulate company policy. “The person has to have impeccable credentials and understand that when they sign their name on the training document, they may be called in to testify in the case of an accident,” says Larry Stone, Rumpke's safety director.
The company also makes it clear to employees that getting hired is only the first step in the process. “Once they go through the application and interview process, then there is a detailed background search and drug testing,” Stone says. “That just gets you into the program.”
“Not everybody has the ability. There's a misconception in the world that all you have to do is get hired. You still have to meet the expectations of our training program. If the person cannot satisfy the requirements, they don't go to the next level.”
At Rumpke, drivers are taught that they must have a professional attitude while behind the wheel — especially when other drivers cut them off. “It's human nature to not want to be behind a garbage truck,” Stone says. Because of this, often drivers will speed up to get around a garbage truck on the highway and then cut in front of it.
“If we're driving a safe distance [from ahead traffic], and someone takes that away, the professional driver has to ignore it,” Stone adds.
After the tragic death of one Rumpke worker and a serious injury to another in early 2004, the company took a lead role in creating a program that educates the driving public to treat garbage trucks with the same caution that they would a school bus. Called “Slow Down to Get Around,” the program provides video and audio public service announcements to television and radio stations about the importance of slowing down around garbage trucks. Waste companies and public sanitation departments can obtain the announcements and then provide them to media outlets in their markets. So far, the campaign has been implemented in 300 cities nationwide.
A former police officer, Stone says people speed up to get around most obstacles. “If it's a school bus, we slow down,” he says. “We're programmed to do that for children. For some reason when we see a truck that has four-way flashers on it we don't do that.”
Stone says raising the awareness level about the safety of all workers on the road is vital. “We are killing and injuring people every single day on the roadway, and nobody's keeping the stats because it's not a 9/11,” he says. “It's not a catastrophic event.”
To educate new, younger drivers still in high school about the importance of avoiding accidents, Stone also has started “Students Against Crashes,” a program he teaches in Cincinnati-area high schools. So far, more than 2,000 students have taken the course.
With more than 10 million customers, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Allied Waste has plenty of opportunities for its workers to get injured. Yet, in the eight years since starting its safety program, the company has seen more than a 50 percent reduction in accident frequency.
With Allied, safety training lessons are reinforced every year for all drivers. “Annually, every one of our drivers is required to attend a Saturday refresher class that addresses both defensive driving and safe collection practices. The classes were developed internally and are facilitated by a third party,” says Garry Mosier, the company's director of safety.
The company places banners, signs and posters throughout the workplace to emphasize sound safety practices. It also produces its own safety videos for workers, and each division within the firm is provided with Power Point technology and digital cameras to customize safety meeting presentations.
Another way in which the firm has sought to improve worker safety is through the use of low-entry dual-drive cabs and automated trucks, Mosier says. “We believe automation will reduce employees' injuries and provide more efficient customer service.”
Paul Kilduff is a San Francisco-based contributing writer.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
Production is slated to begin early this year on the latest in the National Solid Waste Management Association's (NSWMA) “Be Safe, Be Proud” series of safety videos. This year's installment, which will premiere at WasteExpo in May in Atlanta, will focus on the critical role that supervisors play in a company or municipal safety program. The video is designed to help managers and others perform route observations and communicate safe work practices to drivers, helpers and mechanics. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic Services will partner with the association in the production of the video.
Past installments of the series have addressed safety issues presented by residential collection routes, landfills and transfer stations. Each video is roughly 20 minutes in length.
The videos are just one component of NSWMA's comprehensive safety education efforts, which include a leading role in the popular “Slow Down to Get Around” campaign. For more information on the videos and the rest of NSWMA's safety campaign, visit www.nswma.org and click on the “Safety” link.
“We want to make safety part of the DNA of every waste company and sanitation department in the United States,” says David Biderman, general counsel for NSWMA, who heads up the association's safety education efforts.
DRESS FOR SAFETY
A list of the safety apparel needed to perform work in the solid waste industry includes: safety vests, gloves, glasses, work boots, hard hats (for landfill and transfer station employees) and hearing protection (when applicable).