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What the Latest BLS Fatality Figures Tell Us about Waste & Recycling Safety

The latest fatal injury figures show a trend moving in the wrong direction for the waste and recycling sector.

Late last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed the final 2015 figures for industry and occupational fatalities. It brought sobering news for the waste and recycling sector with the total number of fatalities and fatal injury rate both rising to multi-year highs.

Total fatalities for refuse and recyclable material collectors rose from 27 to 33—matching 2013 for the greater number of fatalities since 2006. The fatal injury rate hit 38.8 per 100,000 workers—the highest level since 2006.

“I continue to be concerned with the uptick that we are seeing in frequency,” says Solid Waste Association of North America Executive Director and CEO David Biderman. The fatal injury rate increasing “requires all of us in the industry to redouble our efforts to get useful safety resources and information into the hands of the people that need them. Whether it’s directly, indirectly, through partners or in the public or private sectors, it’s something that we have to focus on in 2017.”

BLS also analyzes data by industry. In solid waste collection in 2015, there was a decrease by 10 percent to 36 fatalities, 27 in the private sector and 9 in the public sector. That was down from 40 in 2014.

According to analysis from the National Waste & Recycling Association, both private and public sector waste and recycling operations had 50 fatalities in 2015, up from 40 in 2014 and driven up mainly by fatalities at the landfill. The last time this number was 50 or higher was in 2008 when 54 fatalities occurred.

On the occupational side, refuse and recyclable material collectors remained the fifth most dangerous profession in 2015 with a fatal injury rate of 38.8 per 100,000 workers.

But 2015 marked the third straight year that the fatal injury rate rose. After dipping to 32.3 per 100,000 workers in 2012, the rate rose to 33 in 2013, to 35.8 in 2014 and hit 38.8 in 2015.

Biderman notes that if the trend continues, the occupation of refuse and recyclable materials collector could actually move up the list of dangerous professions in the coming years.

“If you compare the last two or three years, the fatal injury rate for third and fourth most dangerous jobs are declining,” he says. “If current trends, hold, we are likely to be the third most dangerous job when the 2016 data comes out.”

The numbers also illustrate the effects of automation on the industry. The raw total of fatalities, 33, is the same as 2014. But the fatal injury rate is much greater. That is likely the result of a fewer number of workers, according to Bret Biggers, director of statistics and standards, for NWRA.

"More automated trucks out there means there are fewer collectors, so that helps drive up the incident rate," he says. 

Alarmingly, fatalities at landfills jumped from zero to 9 in 2015. It marked the highest number of fatal injuries at landfills since 2007.

In terms of industry metrics, the number of fatalities for solid waste collection was flat for the private sector from 2014 to 2015 while it dropped by four from 13 to nine in the public sector.

In October, the BLS released its 2015 Workplace Injury and Illness Data. That report was more promising for the sector with the total recordable cases declining across waste and recycling segments.

According to the NWRA, the BLS data for the waste and remediation sector showed:

  • The total recordable cases of workplace injury and illness in the waste management and remedial services category was 4.5 per 100, a decrease from the 2014 rate of 5.1 per 100.
  • The rate for cases with days away from work was 1.9 per 100, a decrease from 2.2 per 100 in 2014.
  • The rate for cases that resulted in job transfer or restriction was 1.2 per 100, the same rate as in 2014.
  • In addition, the BLS data found that in the subcategory for solid waste collection employees within the waste and remediation category was lower in two of three measurements:
  • The total rate of recordable cases for solid waste collection employees was 6.6 per 100, down from the 2014 rate of 7.1 per 100.
  • The rate of cases with days away from work was 2.9 per 100, down from the 2014 rate of 3.3 per 100.
  • The rate of cases with job transfer or restrictions was 1.7 per 100, slightly up from the 2014 rate of 1.5 per 10

For its part, SWANA plans to continue to press on a number of initiatives it has put in place in the last 18 months.

Its Safety Matters webpage is an online resource portal that includes information about each of SWANA’s safety initiatives – including the Safety Ambassador program, Slow Down to Get Around decal distribution, Safety Awards – and direct links to outside resources, such as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).

In September, the association issued its own report on the number of fatalities that had taken place in a 12-month period between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016. Overall, it documented 98 deaths directly related to municipal solid waste collection. Of the fatalities reported in that time period, 38 were solid waste employees on the job, a majority of which occurred during collection. However, 13 of the fatal worker incidents took place at a landfill or materials recovery facility (MRF).

SWANA and its chapters provide information and support through the organization’s Safety Ambassador Program. These Ambassadors serve as safety leaders within the chapter to help reduce accidents and injuries by distributing information, providing training, and providing sympathy and educational outreach to an organization that suffers a fatality.

The NWRA also continues to prioritize safety, making it a key part of its three-year strategic plan.

NWRA is the standard developing organization for ANSI standards in the waste and recycling industry. Throughout 2016, the ASC Z245 has begun the process of creating a standard on landfill safety. 

“The association is providing the industry with different tools to help address the issues,” Biggers says. "People don’t understand the value of ANSI. No matter what area it’s in. It has huge impact on industry. And it ought to have a bigger impact. Needs to be expanded and used more."

It has also organized three safety stand downs in 2016. The first, in January, focused on reducing accidents, fatalities and injuries related to truck backing incidents. In April, the second featured a theme of water, rest and shade and emphasized keeping collection workers safe during hot weather. Lastly, in August the third stand down was a weeklong training and awareness initiative focused around added safety precautions to protect students, teachers and families from harm.

It will host all three stand downs again in 2017.

Recently, Oklahoma became the latest state to enact “Slow Down to Get Around” legislation. That’s a legislative effort supported by associations.

Oklahoma joined 11 other states that have enacted Slow Down to Get Around legislation, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Kenneth M. Baylor, a principal at Advanced Leadership Solutions and a long-time executive with stints at Waste Management, Republic Services and, most recently, Progressive Waste Solutions, wrote an editorial for Waste360 in August taking the industry to task for its approach on safety.

“It is well past the time to stop making excuses and look beyond regulatory compliance programs to establish safe work environments for all of our people as well as the communities they so proudly serve. Enough of the long-term plans; let’s do it now!” Baylor wrote.

Both the NWRA and SWANA wrote responses to Baylor’s piece. Former NWRA President and CEO Sharon H. Kneiss’s piece can be seen here. Biderman’s response was published by WasteDive.

 

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