Safe and Unsound

Safe and Unsound

Officials question report of rising industry fatalities.

A government report that waste and recycling fatalities rose 31 percent in 2011 set off alarm bells in the industry. But preliminary reviews by two officials indicate it may have been something of a false alarm.

Refuse and recyclable material collectors suffered 34 deaths in 2011 compared with 26 in 2010, according to new statistics from the Washington-based U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That pushed the industry to the fourth most dangerous occupation compared with seventh a year ago.    

But those numbers may not tell the real story, says David Biderman, general counsel & director, safety, for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA).

“It appears there was an increase within a small subgroup of collection employees who are not part of the solid waste industry as defined by the federal government,” he says.

David Utterback has closely followed the solid waste industry safety record for years as senior health scientist and services sector coordinator for the Washington-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The BLS records data two ways, primarily – by occupation and by industry.

The occupational breakdown for refuse and recyclable material collection workers includes recyclable material merchant wholesalers, a sector that deals more with scrap, Utterback says. That subgroup had eight fatalities in 2011 and zero listed for 2010 (the government only includes three or more fatalities in the data). That might account for the increase, Biderman and Utterback say.

By industry, the waste management and remediation category consists of three groups: solid waste collection; waste treatment and disposal; and remediation and other waste management services. Utterback says that third group includes operations such as septic tank cleanout and others not generally considered part of the solid waste industry.

By industry classification solid waste industry fatalities rose to 64 in 2011 from 52 the previous year. Again, the subgroup in question may be responsible: Fatalities in that sector rose to 20 in 2011 compared with 8 in 2010.

The news is even more encouraging for the industry when just looking at private sector collection industry fatalities. They fell to 24 in 2011 from 27 a year earlier, Utterback says. For the waste treatment and disposal category private sector, fatalities dropped to 9 from 10.

Also, the public sector saw no changes in the solid waste industry for fatalities in 2011 compared with 2010.

“This is an indication that we’re at least staying on track,” Utterback says. “Of course we’d like to see them lower, but the number of fatalities seems to be holding steady.”

There were positive takeaways from the data, Biderman says. Struck-by injuries – vehicles striking workers on the ground – declined in 2011 and continue to do so in 2012, after increasing significantly when cell phones became popular. 

For Utterback the bigger message is the longer-term trend in the industry. “We’ve seen the fatalities in the solid waste industry drop substantially in the last decade,” he says. “There has been increased attention on prevention activities that the industry has adopted, and it’s showing up with reduced fatalities.”

But the good trends won’t change the NSWMA’s approach to the issue, Biderman says. “We’re still concerned about the number of worker fatalities in the industry. There has been a significant number of third-party fatalities in 2012.”

He emphasizes that the smaller waste and recycling firms need more attention. “The majority of the fatalities are occurring at small haulers. Almost all of those companies do not participate in an NSWMA safety program,” he says. “We want to reach those small haulers with our safety resources, to help them protect their workers. It’s one of our greater challenges, to reach the small haulers who don’t participate.”

In addition, at least 10 fatalities occurred at recycling facilities last year, which was a significant increase from the previous year. “We also need to focus on post-collection as well, and particularly recycling facilities,” he says.

Biderman says those negative fatality trends are not frustrating. “It’s a reminder that it’s a challenge,” he says. “We’re going to continue to develop resources and provide information to the entire industry, not just our members, to reduce frequency of these events.”

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