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Breaking Down the Latest Industry Fatality Stats

The occupation of refuse and recyclable material collector remains the fifth-most dangerous private sector job in the U.S.

Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published its annual review of fatal occupational injuries with the results bringing mixed news for the sector. Overall, the BLS reported that while fatalities of all U.S. workers increased in 2016, in the public and private waste and recycling industry, fatalities declined from 50 in 2015 to 42 in 2016.

On the positive side, the fatality rate for the industry decreased in 2016, which was consistent with BLS data from November that showed a drop in injury rates for some parts of the sector. In addition, the fatal injury rate for the occupation of refuse and recyclable material collector also dropped from the prior year. However, the improvement wasn’t enough to shake the occupation’s position as the fifth-most dangerous private sector occupation as ranked by fatal injury rate.

The numbers “confirm we have a lot more work to do before we can even contemplate taking some kind of victory lap,” says David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America. Refuse and recycling collector is “still identified as the fifth most dangerous job in the U.S. and that continues to be disconcerting. (And incidents are occurring) on far too regular a basis.”

Biderman added that the numbers confirm that the industry associations need to find ways to contact smaller companies and continue to try and change behaviors on the front line.

With that in mind, SWANA and its chapter-based safety ambassadors are developing a toolkit aimed at small haulers in their regions. Through special outreach events held at landfills, MRFs and transfer stations across North America, SWANA intends to provide safety resources, in a variety of languages, to the most vulnerable workers and reduce accidents.

“I expect that effort to be the most important addition to our safety program for 2018,” Biderman says. “I’ve been looking at data for 10 years and the percentage involving smaller haulers is high and increasing. This is a program that has potential to reach the overwhelming number of smaller haulers.”

Though BLS data for 2017 will not be available until late 2018, SWANA has recorded more than 100 fatal incidents involving the waste sector in the U.S., with 30 waste workers and 70 third-parties killed this year.

Bret Biggers, director of statistics and standards for the National Waste & Recycling Association, pointed out that fatal incidents at landfills were higher than normal again in 2016, as they were in 2015. While in some years it’s typical to see five or fewer fatalities, the numbers were much higher the past two years.

The fatality rate at landfills has sparked ANSI to develop a standard. That initiative is less than a year old, but there have been four formal meetings and many working groups meetings that have taken place in that time, according to Biggers.

“We’ve been asking (the biggest landfill operators) some questions to see what’s going on,” Biggers says. “It’s not a good thing to have had nine and nine the past two years.”

Overall, it might take three to five years to fully develop ANSI standards, which is a typical time-frame. But the NWRA is also looking at other best practices they can be circulated sooner.

For waste collection, the number of fatalities in the private sector has been at 27 each of the last three years. In the public sector the number fell from 13 in 2014 to nine in 2015 and down to six in 2016.

“It’s not going up, so that’s a good thing,” Biggers says. On the private side, NWRA is continuing to emphasize its safety initiatives, including its series of safety standdowns, professional development series webinars, safety committee meetings and its “Safety Monday” eblast.

“From all those efforts we will address the waste collection worker,” Biggers says.

Both associations will also continue advocating for “Slow Down to Get Around” legislation. It now is the law in 16 states.

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