Safety First

IT'S THE NEWS THAT NO waste industry professional wants to hear. In January, Eva Barrientos, a New York City sanitation worker, was killed in a freak accident after she was pinned on top of a refuse truck by one of the vehicle's mechanical levers. She had climbed onto the vehicle to free a trash bag that had jammed the hydraulic compactor. With the truck still running, the lever unexpectedly pinned Barrientos, causing fatal chest injuries. “The whole family of sanitation is distraught,” her supervisor said at the time.

Beyond the understandable grief of the New York City waste department, all waste managers have reason to be concerned whenever a fatal or injurious accident occurs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, D.C., solid waste workers have the seventh-highest mortality rate among all industries, with 48.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. Some accidents can be blamed on the heavy machinery involved in managing and processing waste, both inside waste processing facilities and out on the roads. Congested pickup routes also can make maneuvering 25-ton trash trucks difficult, and refuse collectors may find themselves dodging impatient or careless drivers. Other accidents are caused by operator error or neglect. A recent study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association, Washington, D.C., found that refuse workers have the lowest rate of seatbelt use among all commercial vehicle drivers.

These statistics are difficult for the waste industry to absorb, especially because the industry has made great strides in recent years to improve its safety performance. The Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges that the number of employee fatalities related to “refuse systems” declined by more than 30 percent in 2002. According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington, D.C., the number of citations issued to refuse companies by the D.C.-based Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) dropped by 40 percent between 1998 and 2002. Furthermore, the amount of penalties paid by cited companies in 2002 was about one-third of the amount paid four years earlier.

Yet with Americans generating more trash every year, the public and private sectors continue to take important steps to protect refuse workers and the communities they serve.

The Price of Safety

The waste industry's safety record can be easily measured in terms of the numbers of accidents, injuries and fatalities that occur. Safety also can be viewed in economic terms. According to the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council, unintentional injuries cost employers in several ways, including wage and productivity losses; medical expenses; administrative expenses; motor vehicle damages; and uninsured employer costs. Workplace injuries now cost employers more than ever before — about $1 billion per week, according to the Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index. The most costly injuries are related to overexertion, which cost employers a total of $12.5 billion in 2003, according to the index [See “Avoiding Pitfalls” above for a run-down of the most common workplace safety problems].

OSHA levies stiff penalties for safety violations as well. In fiscal year 2002, OSHA issued 78,433 citations and collected about $73 million in penalties, with the average penalty for a serious violation coming in at just under $1,000. Most of the OSHA citations issued to solid waste companies were for violations related to hazard communication, lockout/tagout procedures, operations in confined spaces, personal protective equipment, respiratory protection and blood-borne pathogens.

In the face of such penalties, safety should be viewed not as a cost, but as an investment, says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C. “Reducing accidents,” he says, “either in their frequency or severity, translates into an immediate return on investment through reduced insurance premiums and self-insured retention of the damages paid to settle workers compensation and liability claims.”

Simply put, a company with a good safety program will save money in the long run. A proactive, pre-emptive safety program can bolster companies in the face of lawsuits, and it also can stave off worker protests or strikes, which could be costly in terms of work hours lost and in unfavorable media coverage.

Recently, about 40 employees of Florida Refuse in Lakeland, Fla., picketed outside the company's office to demand increased pay and safety measures. The strike was organized after two Florida Refuse employees were seriously injured in work-related accidents. One worker was burned in a fire that spread to the cab, and the other was struck by a passing car.

In San Antonio last year, waste collectors staged a protest to advocate for the creation of a public education campaign to discourage citizens from overfilling waste containers. City law prohibits waste containers from exceeding 40 pounds when full, yet this rule is frequently broken, rally organizers say. When duty-bound waste workers pickup the cans anyway, this leads to costly injuries. The city's environmental services employees averaged about two injuries per day in 2002, leading to $1.4 million in workers compensation claims.

Last fall, demanding an increase in wages, refuse workers in Chicago also went on strike, bringing the city's garbage collection to a near-standstill before the crisis was resolved. Nearly lost in the headlines about the strike was the fact that, on the workers' part, the desire for more money was often directly related to safety concerns. “People don't realize how much we're really doing out here — the smell, the rats, handling couches that two people ought to be handling,” trash collector Glenda Schaller told the Chicago Tribune. “These cans weigh more than me.”

Setting Standards

Thankfully, the waste industry has more resources than ever before to deal with safety, ergonomics and other health issues. Resources come from both public and private organizations such as EIA's NSWMA, the Washington, D.C.-based National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the National Safety Council. In addition, EIA's sub-association, the Waste Equipment Technology Association (WASTEC), serves as the secretariat for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which issues the Z245 series of standards for equipment and operations for waste and recyclables.

“Protecting industry employees and the public that they serve is a core value of the industry,” says EIA's Parker. “When a trash truck is involved in a fatality, company ownership becomes less important than the black eye the industry receives through unfavorable media coverage.”

In response, a host of safety standards and programs have been developed in recent years. Currently, ANSI Z245 standards exist for collection, transportation, compaction, waste containers, waste and recyclable facilities, and baling equipment. New and revised standards are under regular consideration. NIOSH also issues reports related to waste industry safety and encourages companies to follow ANSI standards. Last year, for example, the institute issued a report on the dangers of baling and compacting equipment.

EIA offers its members various safety initiatives as well, including a video-based driver training program called “Coaching the Refuse Driver,” an extensive safety manual on best management practices; regional safety seminars and educational sessions; and an Internet-based program on ergonomics, created through an OSHA grant and administered by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), Alexandria, Va. The training program is about two hours long and includes streaming video and audio, PowerPoint slides, photographs and other visual aids.

Also, state governments and associations are monitoring and improving refuse worker safety. In Pennsylvania and Virginia, both top importers of municipal solid waste, statewide efforts are underway to keep the influx of solid waste trucks and workers as safe as possible. In Pennsylvania, the state's nearly decade-old TrashNet program is inspecting thousands of trash trucks each year. In 2003, state officials inspected some 4,400 trash trucks at both highway checkpoints and landfills. More than a third of the inspected trucks were put out of service as a result. Virginia also has begun inspecting trash haulers for safety. In April, safety checkpoints along four major routes eventually put 16 vehicles out of service. Although industry insiders say that such inspections usually relate to efforts to deter out-of-state waste, they also indicate an unprecedented level of concern about waste industry safety.

Municipalities, meanwhile, are continually trying to make their waste operations cleaner and safer. This summer, for example, the city of Indianapolis rolled out a new trash collection program that uses automated trucks and requires only one driver, replacing the old municipal system that included a driver and two collectors hanging off the back of the trucks. About 26,000 of the city's 250,000 homes are participating in the pilot program. Already, city administrators have reported a “substantial decline” in the number of days lost to injury and the number of workers compensation claims.

Company Incentives

But governmental initiatives are just part of the equation. Waste companies have a responsibility to train their employees and encourage the safest operating practices. Waste workers often toil in difficult, trying conditions. Like soldiers in a war, losing a colleague because of injury or death makes it extremely challenging for other workers to continue their work. When waste companies implement safety programs, they not only keep workers safe, they also boost employee morale and give workers confidence that their employers are looking out for them.

Not surprisingly, Houston-based Waste Management Inc. has implemented one of the most far-reaching and comprehensive worker safety plans. Thanks to a program called “Mission to Zero,” which includes classroom instruction, route observation, monitoring of safety data and driver training, employee fatalities have dropped by 77 percent since 2001, according to the company. Mission to Zero involves a two-phase safety-certification program. Phase one provides 16 hours of classroom training that focuses on the safe performance of day-to-day tasks. Phase two offers classroom and on-site training for drivers and other workers, covering such topics as the safe operation of vehicles and other equipment, the best ways to move and lift containers, and methods for dealing with angry dogs.

Waste Management also has employed current technologies to keep its employees informed about safety data. Called “Alive” and “WasteMaster,” two computer-based tracking systems assess compliance with federal regulations and enforce transportation safety. The Alive program focuses on Waste Management employees, while WasteMaster analyzes the performance of third-party hauling companies and their drivers who use company facilities. Drivers are issued Smart Cards containing a computer chip that includes information related to driver's licenses, insurance contacts, physical examination status and motor vehicle reports. When a driver arrives at a transfer station or landfill, the Smart Card is swiped through the WasteMaster/Alive unit, which immediately determines compliance or noncompliance. Once the driver receives authorization to enter the facility, WasteMaster/Alive tracks the time spent at the transfer station and the arrival at the landfill.

For its part, Cincinnati-based Rumpke Consolidated Companies and Dodge Center, Minn.-based McNeilus Truck and Manufacturing have joined forces in a new safety program, called “Slow Down to Get Around.” Administered in partnership with the NSWMA, the campaign uses television and radio ads, brochures and decals to encourage citizens to use caution when going around service vehicles such as garbage, delivery and postal trucks. Rumpke's Safety Director Larry Stone says the program was created after two recent accidents in which refuse workers were hit by cars. “The only thing that I can think to do is to try to educate the public that there are workers around these trucks and human lives at stake,” he says. In one TV spot, a careless driver fumbles with the radio and gets in an accident that injures a refuse worker. As she expresses relief that he will live, an officer tells her, “Next time, slow down to get around.”

Already, the program is starting to take hold around the nation. In July, the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, Easton, Pa., paid for the “Slow Down to Get Around” radio spot to play on 60 stations statewide. In announcing the association's involvement, President Tom McMonigle expressed concern that Pennsylvania's waste collection crews were frequently exposed to the danger of being struck as they got on and off their vehicles. Member refuse trucks also will be outfitted with decals encouraging drivers to slow down.

In addition to keeping employees safe, voluntary safety programs can earn waste companies OSHA's Star status, awarded under the agency's Voluntary Protection Program. The distinction is awarded to companies and work sites that have a three-year average injury rate below that of its industry average as well as safety programs that greatly exceed OSHA standards. OSHA auditors recommend Star status after completing a comprehensive evaluation of a facility's safety program, examining management styles, employee involvement, hazard prevention, and safety and health training. Of the 6.5 million workplaces eligible for Star status, just more than 950 have earned the certification.

Last year, OSHA awarded Star status to two Broward County, Fla., waste-to-energy plants operated by Wheelabrator Technologies, Hampton, N.H. “We've raised the bar on staying safe — and it was all voluntary,” says Chris Carey, general manager of the Broward facilities. “This is the ultimate goal of every plant in every industry.” And, with a growing number of safety and training programs available, it's a goal that the waste industry can and should be able to reach.

Contributing Editor Kim A. O'Connell is based in Arlington, Va.


The most common safety problems in the waste industry involve repetitive motions and overexertion. Here are some things waste managers should watch out for:

  • Repetitiveness: This could involve constant bending and lifting of trash containers, or sorting materials in a recycling facility. Refuse truck drivers and workers sometimes have to lift as much as 75 pounds, hundreds of times a day. Managers should encourage workers to take breaks or to switch roles occasionally.
  • Overexertion: Sanitation workers are always at risk of lifting loads that are too heavy. Sometimes, moving arms and hands too quickly in the performance of a task also can cause ergonomic stress.
  • Position/posture: Waste industry workers can suffer safety risks from being in one position too long or from stretching or twisting their posture in unnatural ways. Again, regular breaks can allow the body to recover.
  • Inadequate equipment and training: Waste facility and fleet managers should regularly ensure that equipment is being used properly and that it is adequate for the task at hand.