Are Your Workers Accidents Waiting To Happen?

You knew collecting solid waste was dangerous, but did you know that 110 people died between 1980 and 1992 when workers fell or were run over by refuse collection vehicles? In addition to these stats from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Washington, D.C., the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, D.C., reports that of the 141,500 sanitation workers on the job in 1994, 20,000 suffered work-related injuries - some of which resulted in lost work days. Of those, vehicle-related injuries and workers who were in the wrong spot at the wrong time together accounted for more than 2,400 injuries.

In these instances, safety equipment can prove essential. To enhance communication between drivers and collectors, NIOSH recommends experimenting with radios like those used by aviation ground workers and firefighters, and by using hand-held gas-operated horns, additional mirrors, closed circuit television and infrared sensing units.

But the best way to ensure employee safety, according to industry professionals, is to combine equipment with a comprehensive safety program to which every employee feels obligated.

"The number one problem with safety programs is getting management commitment," said Dan Arnold, public works safety specialist for the city of Merced, Calif. "You could have the best training program, but if your manager isn't committed to safety, and he doesn't have his people rallying behind him, the workers won't be enthused about the program either."

It also helps to involve equipment operators and other field workers in the program's implementation process, said Tim Mahone, solid waste supervisor for the city of Mesa, Ariz. "Don't issue instructions from the top down, but get input from the field instead. Workers will buy into the safety program if they feel part of it."

In certain instances, employees perform best under peer pressure than from a foreman, Arnold said. This can work especially well when using an incentive program based on the whole group's performance: Rather than watching someone risk back injury by lifting a heavy object all by himself, employees will be more likely to help one another.

Although incentive programs run the gamut, they all seem to have one thing in common: building worker self-esteem and helping them develop positive attitudes and behaviors.

"The old-line's safety philosophy used to be if you screwed up, you'd get hit over the head," said Dwayne Burt, safety manager for York Waste Disposal Inc., York, Pa.

He stressed the importance of building driver and loader self-esteem by pointing out the positive rather than the negative. "Compliance issues are important, but try to focus on the people," he said. "Talk to the guys; give them positive feedback. Use a proactive approach rather than a reactive one."

Prizes, Honor And Glory Many programs are based on some type of recognition program or contest. Some employees even take home gifts or are given a monetary reward for their safety efforts.

York began its safety incentive program aiming to reduce its annual incident rates by 20 percent. Each of its 340 employees receive $50 if all employees meet the company's injury-rate goal for a six-month period.

Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., Houston, takes another approach: For the last ten years, it has sponsored international truck and equipment rodeos where its most safety-conscious employees prove themselves on an obstacle course, said Pam Harris, divisional vice president of safety and health services in Plano, Texas.

In ten events, drivers demonstrate their knowledge about truck dimensions, operating capabilities, turning and backing up, by maneuvering through cones that get progressively more narrow or by moving serpentine through barrels set a truck length apart.

To be eligible to compete, drivers cannot have any accidents or moving violations on their record and must have gone one year without an injury that resulted in lost work time.

"Few programs create a daily reminder of safety," Harris said. "With the rodeo, one single event during the year can throw you out of the competition."

Another safety incentive program used by the Solid Waste Authority in Palm Beach County, Fla., includes monthly safety incentive awards, which get better as the year progresses. "It may start out as inexpensive as a $1.50 pen, but by the end of the fiscal year, an employee might have a watch or a Buck knife," said William Dillard, assistant director of operations, responsible for the transportation services division.

However, if an employee is responsible for an accident, the award is lost for that month. If no incidents happen during the following month, the employee still remains one incentive behind everyone else and can never reach the "grand prize" for that year.

Dillard said he spends about $125 a year per employee on safety incentive awards.

The city of Phoenix has a similar program whereby each driver who goes three months without a chargeable accident and takes no more than three sick days receives $100.

But Mark O'Connor, deputy public works director for the city's solid waste field service division, said the program worked best when it first began.

After time, workers expect the money, and the reason behind the incentive may get lost, he cautioned. "If money becomes that important, workers might not report all the small accidents."

Training Plenty of other ways exist to boost morale. Outside influences can become accidents if a worker is mired in domestic issues, if there's been a divisional lay-off, "or if the manager's just an idiot," Arnold said.

Although different shifts make it difficult to get everyone together for meetings, Arnold said it's a feat worth the effort. "Communication is important for morale. The key is for management to communicate with the employees. It doesn't have to be much. Just talk to them and thank them."

However some places - such as one city in the San Francisco Bay area that pays a massage therapist $22 an hour to destress its employees with rub-downs - go beyond simple thank-yous. According to Arnold, this city has proved that the massage cost actually offsets the money paid in workers compensation benefits.

Of course the best way to avoid accidents is to provide proper training in the first place. For example, Dillard's new drivers spend a minimum of 30 days in training. By the end of the first week, drivers have completed a written Department of Transportation test, a road test and have been inundated with instructions, policies, procedures and safety videos.

"The easiest way to deal with an employee is to have a standardized set of rules," he said. "It takes the burden of responsibility off yourself and puts it on the employee."

After the first week, three weeks of actual driving follow prior to a driver's release onto the road, during which time a certified operator monitors driving habits, skills, turning and professional attitude.

Training programs should be longer and more extensive for truck drivers than for heavy equipment operators, since transfer station activity is slow, methodical and continually supervised. But on the street, safety problems become even more pervasive with "untold thousands [of people in cars] who see a lumbering tractor-trailer and have the same thought: 'Get around it!' You have to be able to trust that [the drivers on the highway] have learned how to do their job and that they understand the ramifications of mistakes."

Dillard knows that two weeks will not change bad driving practices, but after 30 days of constant orientation, he has seen that employees have a tendency to change long-imbedded habits.

The additional training time has resulted in a 25 percent drop in the transport services division accident rate: In the last three years, it has had only one chargeable accident and, in fiscal year 1994-1995 where trucks carried 56,000 loads - equivalent to almost 2 million miles - there was not one highway-related accident.

"If you don't think taking 30 days to train is worth it, how much time do you think you'll have after an accident?" Dillard asked. "Indirect costs are three to five times higher than direct costs because everyone has to stop and talk, you lose the employee and you lose the equipment."

Similarly, O'Connor reported that Phoenix's accident rate was "fairly substantial" until the division began a defensive driving safety program and annual reviews nearly three years ago.

"Showing a film of our own drivers in the field was most helpful," said David Knight, Phoenix's training and safety division foreman. "They watch our own trucks using right and wrong procedures at the landfill, and they pick up on how not to do something."

Both O'Connor and Knight recommended tailoring safety programs to specific needs of an operation so that employees are better able to relate to the reasons behind the procedures.

Understanding the patterns and trends within your own program by recording accidents and injuries also can prove beneficial. Training programs then can be geared specifically toward those problems.

"Too often we rely on antidotal information when it comes to loss prevention," said Harris. "But when you look at your own data, you see how issues can vary in different parts of the country or in different situations and systems."

Bloody Workplaces Of course, other job hazards exist aside from learning how to lift a container correctly, or training employees to take the operational keys with them every time they step behind the packer blade to clean it.

Workplace violence is on the rise, and waste collectors have become the unfortunate target of frustrated citizens.

Merced workers have encountered everything from aggressive dumpster divers and gangs throwing rocks to "some wacko guy who decided the Saturday morning collection was too noisy and stood with a gun at the window to prevent a pickup."

Safety managers should consider training workers in "verbal judo," - a method that applies listening and communication techniques to defense.

"Let the guy go off until he depletes himself," Arnold suggested. "Then, when the driver just responds with empathy and says something like 'That's a bummer,' the escalation is stopped."

Buying Safety In large cities where violence seems to be commonplace, bullet proof vests may be the equipment of choice, but for the vast majority, steel-toed boots, hard hats and gloves are the norm.

Personal safety equipment depends on the work site. Employees who spend time on the transfer station floor need safety boots adapted to a slick, wet floor, said Dillard, who recommended an oil-resistant boot with a smooth sole that ensures that workers' feet have as much contact with the floor as possible. At a minimum, he requires employees to wear iridescent vests and hard hats. Recently, employees switched to orange shirts to avoid problems with vests which routinely got caught on things.

More high-tech safety equipment includes low-entry cabs that minimize fatigue, motion detectors that warn drivers if someone moves into their blind spot, color monitors in cabs and pocket radios.

In the future, even more specialized equipment - like a truck sensor that detects volatile organic compounds - may be needed if, as Arnold predicts, waste haulers and recyclers are called upon to prevent businesses and home owners from illegally dumping hazardous materials.

Ultimately, no matter how much safety equipment is on hand or how many hours employees spend learning the proper procedures, the employees themselves must be responsible for their own safety, said Arnold.

"No matter how far you take it, you can't hold their hands if they choose to be unsafe," he said.

* 3M Personal Safety Products. Manufactures reflective graphic materials for increased visibility. Contact: Susan Haider, 3M Center, Bldg. 225-14N-14, St. Paul, Minn. 55114-1000. (800) 328-7098, Ext. 2. E-Mail: WWW.3M.COM.SCOTCHLITE

* Clarion Sales Corp. Back up cameras and monitors. Contact: Brant Clark, 661 West Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, Calif. 90247. (310) 327-9100.

* INTEC Video Systems Inc. Car vision safety and two-way audio systems. Contact: David Nama, 23301 Vista Grande Dr., Laguna Hills, Calif. 92653. (800) 468-3254. Fax: (714) 859-3178.

* KG Rear Vision, a division of Kanematsu USA Inc. Automotive collision avoidance products. Contact: Ron Silc, 543 West Algonquin Rd., Arlington Heights, Ill. 60005. (800) KG EYE-12. Fax: (847) 981-6764. E-Mail: [email protected]

* Omni Industries Inc. Distributors of Sony rear vision equipment. Contact: Jason Smith, 11931 Wickchester, Ste. 201, Houston, Texas 77043. (713) 597-8088. Fax: (713) 597-9718.

* Safety Vision Inc. Distributor for Clarion Rear Vision back up cameras. Contact: Bruce Smith, 11767 Katy Freeway, Ste. 900,

Houston, Texas 77079. (800) 880-8855. Fax: (713) 589-7432.

* For a complete list of collection safety manufacturers, refer to the World Wastes Buyers' Guide (July 1996 issue).