You can't do safety from a desk and no one wearing a tie knows more about staying safe in the field as the men and women who do a job every day. My number one goal as the newly appointed president and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) is to find effective methods to reduce injuries and fatalities within the nation's fifth most dangerous occupation. With that, I realized that in order to talk about safety and work to move the needle in the industry, I needed to get a better handle on our industry’s work on the front lines.
On a Friday late last month, at 7:00 AM, sharp, a Waste Management garbage truck pulled up to the front of my home in D.C. The horn sounded twice as I walked up to the passenger side and opened the door to climb onboard. A tall, fit gentleman with a large smile greeted me and informed me that he had added an extra cushion on the seat for my comfort.
Francis Bush, a 27-year veteran of the waste industry, accelerated his vehicle forward with me at his side. Bush, as he prefers to be called, listens to Christian talk radio on his route and has one of the most optimistic outlooks on life of anyone I have met in downtown D.C. in my 19 years living in the nation’s capital. That being said, he was clearly mission-focused and I wondered how many questions I would be able to ask before he was ready to go back to his normally solitary rounds.
As it turned out though, his job was not nearly as lonely as one might imagine. Waiting for Bush on nearly every dock and in every back alley was a facilities or dock worker ready to give Bush a helping hand. When encountering any of these men or women, each one lit-up with a smile when they saw Bush arrive. This is no more a lonely job than that of a U.S. Postal Worker.
Bush rolled in and backed out of alleys so tight I questioned if I could have gotten my normal sized car through such a gauntlet. On one especially challenging quest for a dumpster, Bush looked at me and said “adapt, overcome and improvise.” He knew I was impressed with the maneuver.
On about the tenth stop we inched into a tight loading dock at the historic Willard Hotel. At the Willard dock, a bag of danishes awaits Bush. He and I finished off a couple and saved the rest for the guys that work the scales at the transfer station, our ultimate destination.
Bush’s job is physically and mentally demanding. He is constantly “on,” moving his torso left and right, paying attention and climbing in and out of his truck to position dumpsters so that they can be easily grabbed by his forks.
I thought now was a good time to ask Bush what I really wanted to know from this veteran waste handling professional.
"Bush, what can be done to make your job safer," I asked.
His answer told me he did not really understand what I meant. I wanted to know how to make “him” safer. But his selfless reply was rather touching.
He said maybe we could use some sensors so I will be sure not to hit a pedestrian or bicyclist. I made note of his response, and then asked again a few minutes later, "What could be done to make 'you' safer?"
He said he felt plenty safe, but mentioned that a few more mirrors might help him watch out better for people and cars. I wondered if the folks passing by Bush's truck, either pedestrians, bicyclists or cars, all coming way too close, realized how much this driver cared about their safety and wellbeing.
Bush told me he always looks twice, just something he has learned over the years. He has also learned to never eat a big lunch as it makes him groggy and less alert.
Bush will be celebrating his 32nd wedding anniversary soon, a fact he mentioned more than once. He told me how proud he was of his two boys, one works for the D.C.’s transit system, WMATA/Metro, and the other is an electrician.
This experience was priceless so this won’t be my last time on a ride along on one of these trucks. I look forward to spending more time in trucks, at landfills and in MRFs to build an enhanced working knowledge and to be part of the solution for our industry’s safety needs.
Darrell Smith is president and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association.