Everything You Wanted to Know About MRF Safety (but didn't know what to ask)

For years, many material recovery facility (MRF) operators felt like they were slamming a square peg into a round hole when it came to implementing safety standards.

Although the larger, national companies had the luxury of time and resources to research and write MRF safety procedures, the mid- and small-sized organizations resorted to using basic standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., in conjunction with old-fashioned common sense.

But no more. As of January 1, 1998, MRFs seeking an effective safety policy can adopt Z245.41, the most recent addition from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), New York, N.Y. Part of the Z245 series and seven years in the making, Z245.41 addresses everything from MRF design and equipment maintenance to worker safety.

This "forward-thinking standard" seeks to address the most common problems faced by MRFs, such as collisions, inadequate personal protection, machine guarding and hazardous materials, says Jack Legler, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Waste Equipment Technology Association (WASTEC), which developed the Z245 standards (see "The Art and Science of Safety," World Wastes, December 1997).

The standards were crafted by a committee of industry professionals who shared their experiences and company policies. "We asked for the best thoughts of all of our best thinkers in the industry and tried to come up with the best set of safety rules for facilities," says Legler, the committee's vice-chairperson.

ANSI has been looking to develop a "systematic template" of safety standards for MRFs to follow since the dawn of the recycling age, says Legler who notes that until now, there has never been a standard that deals with MRF design or on how the specific processes should work together.

Thus, it was important to focus on standards for the facility designer, who will make sure the technology and machinery are compatible, Legler says.

"Every MRF is built differently, with sometimes as many as nine or 10 manufacturers," he explains. "When you hook one machine to another, there's no guarantee that it will work right or at the most efficient level."

For example, there has been no standard that dealt specifically with equipment malfunction. "We needed to specify in an emergency stop what machines quit and what alarms go off," he says. "The standard says that the equipment will be reset from a start-up position, which seems common sense, but we have to have it written down."

The standard also addresses the training levels for MRF operators in various areas, whether protective equipment is mandatory or discretionary and how to handle potentially dangerous materials.

Such safety standards might have helped prevent a fatal accident at a northern New Jersey MRF last December: A shipment of aerosol cans containing hair spray opened after being fed into a baler. A spark ignited the gaseous cloud, which erupted in a ball of fire, killing one worker and severely burning another.

"A lot of different kinds of materials pass through these facilities - some of them potentially hazardous - but there has never been any set way in which to handle them," Legler says. "In our industry, people are integral. All the environmental good you do is undone when you hurt people."

Despite the recent spotlight on aerosol can recycling safety, Legler says the issue is not addressed in the new standard due to poor industry input. However, he aims to tackle aerosol can recycling as a future supplemental standard.

Worker Safety In an effort to keep workers from developing repetitive stress disorders, Z245.41 includes a formula that calculates the average burden flow rate for conveyor and sorting stations.

MRF designers can use this average as a benchmark to their own facility's estimated optimal processing output.

While the standards, a consensus document, are voluntary, they will be used as a guide by OSHA, which mandates that existing MRFs must comply with the new standard's sections on equipment and the plant in five years.

However, within 18 months of Z245.41's October 14, 1997 approval date, all new facilities must operate in accordance with the standard and all existing facilities must comply with its employer and training sections.

"This [standard] will really help the [smaller MRFs] control their losses and protect against mishaps," says Heather Lawton, medical program and industrial hygiene manager of Waste Management Inc. (WMI), Oak-brook, Ill., who served on the ANSI committee. "If they don't have a safety plan, this will be a comprehensive guide they can turn to."

While federal and state regulations are in place, Lawton says many MRFs are unaware of what those regulations are or how to research the information they need.

"The rules are there, but they are no good unless you use and understand them," she explains. "For MRFs that care about safety, ANSI is a good resource."

Since the standard was developed by industry experts, a MRF operator can feel secure using it. And, if a safety incident should occur and the MRFs' processes are called into question, the standard can be used as legal footing in court, ANSI says.

Committee member, Al Diben, director of environmental safety and health for the collection group of Browning-Ferris Industries Inc. (BFI), Houston, agrees with Lawton that the standard sums up what MRF operators should be doing.

"It's easy to figure out that this is the right way to operate," he says, adding that the standard is specific to types of equipment and types of operations.

The committee's ideal purpose was to create a standard that assesses the problems and gives "real world solutions," he says.

While larger companies, like WMI and BFI, already have extensive safety plans in place, the opportunity to meet with other large companies and develop the standard was "extremely beneficial," Lawton says.

She notes that WMI's safety plan has been revised numerous times and covers everything from vehicles to training to dealing with a hazardous work environment.

"[Developing Z245.41] gave us the opportunity to rethink what tools we had in place and talk with other companies about how they do things," she says. "We could talk in a non-competitive environment about what other companies think, for example, about needles showing up on the line."

And, according to both Lawton and Diben, many of the company representatives who served on the committee shared their unique safety practices to craft the standard.

"It wasn't like something was taken from anyone's safety manual and was rewritten verbatim as part of the standard," Diben emphasizes.

"It was more like we discussed [how we'd handle a given situation] and another company talked about the way they would handle it and we took a piece here and piece there."

Lawton hopes that Z245.41 will help address the problem that occurs when municipalities own, but do not operate, the MRF.

In such a case, an operator will use unskilled, cheaper labor instead of maintaining a quality workforce, which increases the chances for mishap, she says.

Then, when an accident inevitably occurs, neither the municipality nor the operator owns up to the responsibility. However, if the operator had adhered to a safety plan, incidents such as fires or worker injuries could be prevented.

Although the standard is not law, Lawton advises that since it was developed by people in the industry, "it's in the best interest [of MRFs] to be part of it or live with the consequences."

However, Diben adds that even the best thought out and most comprehensive standard will always be a matter of a trial and error. "Sometimes, what you do in one place won't work at other facilities," he says. "So, interpret it as best you can."