In May of this year, a roll-off truck driver in St. Louis neglected to lower the container boom on his vehicle. With the truck traveling at 45 miles per hour on the interstate, the boom smashed a concrete pier that was holding up an overpass and produced a crack that looked like the spiraling stripe on a barber pole, according to witnesses.
The accident stopped traffic for hours along the interstate and forced officials to restrict traffic on the overpass road for 73 days while repairs were made. The driver was fired, and the waste management company paid a $250,000 share of the repair bill.
In February 1998, a maintenance worker at a landfill near Atlanta failed to lock-out/tag-out a tire grinder properly. When the man climbed into the machine to perform repairs, it somehow turned on. He died before the paramedics could arrive.
In mid-'98, a temporary employee working for a municipal collection operation in New York state positioned himself half-in and half-out of his truck to push the trash onto the a transfer station floor. Somehow, the compactor activated and crushed him to death.
Accidents in the waste management industry can be bizarre, costly and, all too often, deadly. "If you lose concentration for just a second while working with machinery and hydraulics, [accidents] can happen very quickly," says Tim Ayer, a vice president with the Noyle W. Johnson Insurance Agency, Montpelier, Vt.
Ayer works with Portland, Maine-based Acadia Insurance Co. to provide insurance, develop safety programs and track safety performance for Casella Waste Systems, Rutland, Vt.
Despite the importance of safety, or perhaps because of it, few waste management companies are willing to talk publicly about the issue.
However, don't misinterpret this silence, Ayer cautions. "All of the top companies have gotten religious when it comes to safety," he says. "You don't get to be that large without thinking about safety." Small operators may have more safety issues that need addressing, he adds.
While statistics breaking out accidents in the waste management industry are as difficult to come by as is information about safety programs, companies point to lower insurance and worker's compensation costs as proof that effective programs reduce the frequency and severity of accidents.
In some cases, the lower insurance costs produced by a good safety program may not only pay for the program, but also may add substantially to the bottom line.
Safety Awareness The Transportation Research Board of the Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. conducts annual workshops that study human factors in transportation.
At a workshop conducted several years ago, panelists cited "awareness" as one of the most important factors in promoting safety. According to the panel, there are two types of awareness:
* Situational awareness describes a driver's awareness of road/weather conditions and of other nearby vehicles.
* Awareness of capabilities describes a driver's understanding of what he or she can do with a vehicle. This might include judging gaps in traffic, crossing conditions at intersections or passing conditions.
The panel went on to say that awareness may be even more important to safety than the driver's actual skill level. For example, drivers who are aware of their limitations are more apt to avoid situations that would tax their capabilities.
Other insurance industry studies have found that wearing a safety belt makes drivers safer, but not for the obvious reason. Drivers who wear safety belts, it seems, have fewer accidents than those who don't. These studies speculate that the simple act of buckling a safety belt raises a driver's awareness of safety and, thus, leads to safer driving.
In his work with Casella, whose combined companies have 1,043 employees, Ayer tries to raise awareness of the specific safety problems in each operational area: collection, material recovery facilities (MRFs), landfills and transfer stations.
Collection operations often produce two types of insurance exposures, according to Ayer. "First, there are back injuries due to lifting," he says. "It's important to have training programs to teach crews how to lift properly.
Truck technology, such as automatic lifts on trucks, also can help to improve performance in this area and to minimize exposure to workers' compensation injuries.
"Second is exposure to vehicle accidents," he continues. "The most important thing to be careful of is backing up to get to and from containers. Cameras on the rear of trucks and driver training helps a lot in these areas."
For MRF employees, workers' compensation injuries come in the form of cuts and bruises on the hands from not wearing the proper gloves, says Ayer, who notes that Tevlar and rubber gloves can reduce such injuries. MRF workers also should be aware of slips and falls, problems that can be allayed by wearing proper shoes.
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires hard hats and goggles for MRF work, Ayer says that consistent management oversight is needed to ensure that employees use the required safety equipment.
"It costs $150,000 for an eye replacement operation," he says. "But goggles that cost a couple of dollars can prevent that kind of accident. Employees have to wear the goggles, and management on the floor has to impose firm policies about using such equipment.
"The first time you find an employee without goggles, [management should] issue a warning," he suggests. "The second time, [management should] send the employee home for the day. The third time, the employee should be terminated. There must be consequences for failing to follow the safety manual."
Top landfill safety concerns involve equipment-related fires. "Landfills use a lot of heavy equipment, and the biggest exposures come from fire in the equipment," Ayer says. "It's important that the equipment have effective fire suppression systems.
"Landfills also have general liability exposures related to public access," he continues. "You need proper fencing to keep the public away from areas that pose safety threats."
Transfer stations often must deal with tarping problems. Several years ago, one of Ayer's clients reported several serious injuries when employees fell off of trucks while trying to cover loads with tarps. "The company installed automatic tarping equipment on its trucks and eliminated this problem," Ayer says.
By and large, Casella follows Ayer's safety recommendations, according to Jack Haen, the company's safety manager. In collections, for example, new hires ride with experienced drivers who teach trainees how to avoid backing up whenever possible, how to back up safely when necessary and how to test containers before lifting.
All single-driver Casella trucks have back-up cameras, and specifications for new trucks have included cameras for several years now. All trucks that move trash from transfer stations and landfills use automatic tarping equipment.
"In our MRFs, we provide Tevlar gloves as well as rubber-palmed gloves," Haen says. "We also provide arm protection. Most of these things are voluntary, and I haven't seen any cuts since I've been here. Should a particular kind of injury become an issue, then we might set safety requirements in particular areas."
Haen also oversees a program to help employees pay for safety boots. The program reimburses employees for boot costs up to $50 and helps them to pay for more expensive footwear through payroll deduction programs.
Casella covers mandated OSHA safety training programs with annual training sessions related to using fire extinguishers, fork lift operation and lock-out/tag-out procedures for equipment maintenance. Safety goggles and hard hats also are required and carefully monitored, per OSHA regulations.
"We offer employees inoculations for illnesses that can be spread by blood-born pathogens, particularly Hepatitis B," Haen adds. "This has been required by OSHA for five years."
To maintain safety awareness among employees, Casella underscores safety with cash incentive programs. "We have safe driving and safe working awards programs in which employees can earn up to $300 per year," Haen says.
"If a driver or worker goes without an accident or injury for six months, we'll pay $100," he continues. "For going the next six months without an accident, we'll pay an additional $100 for that period, plus $100 for working safely for an entire year."
The results of the award program argue for the effectiveness of the approach. Last year, Casella paid out $34,700 to 425 drivers - more than half of the company's 800 drivers.
Casella's safety programs have earned dividends in the form of lower insurance costs. For example, workers' compensation insurance rates are set by something called the "experience modification factor," which will vary above and below a value of 1.
Insurance companies calculate experience modification factors by considering the frequency and severity of accidents occurring over a three-year period. For a company with an experience modification factor of 1, an insurance carrier will offer the average rate offered to all companies in the industry, within that state.
A company with an experience modification factor of 1.5 will pay 1.5 times the average rate, while a company with an experience factor of 0.5 will pay half the average rate.
The experience modification factor becomes even more important when viewed in context with Casella's interest in acquiring other waste management companies.
"When we pick up a new company with a good rate, that helps our overall rate," Haen says. "On the other hand, a company with a bad rate can hurt. Our acquisition teams look at the safety record of potential acquisitions and factor it into the final decision."
Over the years, despite numerous acquisitions, Casella has hammered away at safety awareness and has driven the company's experience modification factor down to 0.94, which allows a discount of 6 percent from the average insurance rates paid in the waste management industry.
To maintain safety awareness among management, Haen and Ayer talk weekly to evaluate accidents that occurred during the past seven days. Ayer provides an accident spreadsheet, which is circulated to all divisions.
"The spreadsheet logs all accidents and shows everything you want to know about each accident: time of day, weather conditions, what happened, whether or not it was preventable, whether or not it was department of transportation recordable and what type of disciplinary action, if any, was taken," Haen says.
"Whether or not it was the employee's fault, we review every accident with the employee and discuss how to prevent a recurrence," he says.
If an accident is logged as preventable, the employee involved can appeal that decision to a divisional accident review board composed of three people, including one or two drivers.
"The review board makes a final decision about whether an accident could have been prevented," Haen says. "We've found that employees, while they may appeal the original decision, usually will live with the decision of a review board."
Adding Dollars to the Bottom Line Owners and managers of smaller waste management companies may doubt that their resources can support an extensive safety program.
However, that's not necessarily true. For example, the experience of Austin, Texas-based Texas Disposal Systems Inc. suggests that a small company can turn its safety record around and slash insurance costs in short order.
Texas Disposal operates 65 collection vehicles, which handle residential, commercial and roll-off accounts. The company disposes of trash by way of two transfer stations and a 343-acre landfill, which handles 1,500 tons per day.
Two years ago, the company, which has 200 employees, had an annual accident rate of 13.1 accidents per 100 employees. The average annual rate in the waste management business is much lower: 7.1 accidents per 100 employees.
"Safety begins with the quality of the people you hire," says Ron Leahy, Texas Disposal's spokesperson. "Over the past 18 months, we've focused on hiring more qualified and experienced people."
Texas Disposal requires that every new employee, whether he or she is experienced or not, spend a full day in a classroom learning about safety in his or her area.
The classroom program consists of approximately five hours of videos, which cover every aspect of safety an employee would need to be familiar with on the job (see "Texas Disposal Film Library" above).
In addition to training new hires, Texas Disposal has a refresher training program and requires that every employee review one safety subject each month.
The company also awards safety-conscious employees twice a year through an incentive program. Employees with no accidents or injuries throughout the year can earn $1,200.
To keep safety at the forefront of employees' minds, Texas Disposal holds monthly meetings to discuss accidents both inside and outside the company.
For example, Leahy says, "A couple months ago, we talked about an accident that one of our competitor's drivers had. A truck was driving along a road parallel to railroad tracks. The driver, watching for traffic coming from the right, made a left turn across the tracks.
"He tried to beat some traffic, didn't see the train coming and was killed," he continues. "A lot of our people knew the driver because he had worked here once. We discussed the accident and what to do if you find yourself in the same kind of situation."
In some instances, Texas Disposal even has had to turn away business when providing service to a particular customer would make the work environment too dangerous for employees.
"Once, a new customer wanted us to service a front-load container placed at the end of a long alley, which required the truck to back up 100 yards and back out into traffic," Leahy says. "We couldn't persuade the customer to move the container, and so we decided not to take the account.
"The chance of being rear-ended was too great," he explains. "It's important not to put drivers, or any employees, into situations where they can fail."
The Texas Disposal safety program has produced excellent results rather quickly. During 1997, the first full year of the safety program, the company's accident rate fell from nearly twice the industry average of 7.1 per 100 workers per year to 4.1, a rate that has continued for the first half of 1998.
The company's recent safety performance also has produced savings on insurance costs. "Our workers' compensation premiums have gone down by 50 percent," Leahy says. "And our liability and property damage rates have declined by 30 percent."
While Leahy hesitates to cite the amount of monetary savings, he notes that Texas Disposal's safety program costs are insignificant when compared to the intangible savings - the reduction of damage potentially done to its workers.
The classroom program at Texas Disposal, Austin, Texas, consists of five hours of videos, which cover every aspect of safety an employee would need to be familiar with on the job. Titles include:
* Accident Investigation
* Back Safety*
* Bloodborne Pathogens*
* Disabled Vehicle Safety
* Driving Safety*
* Drug Free Workplace*
* Electrical Safety*
* Employee Right To Know*
* Fire Extinguisher Safety*
* Frontload Operations
* Frontload Safety
* Heat Stress*
* Identification of Hazardous Materials*
* Rear-end Load Safety
* Roll-off Operations
* Roll-off Safety
* Route Safety Analysis
* Stash the Trash