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Out of Harm's Way

On nov. 28, a waste collector outside of Greenville, S.C., was killed after pushing his co-worker out of the way of an oncoming car and being hit himself. Thirty minutes later, nearly 1,400 miles north in snowy Caribou, Maine, another collector died when a sports utility vehicle skidded into his truck. In both incidents, the workers were pinned between the pedestrian vehicles and their own collection trucks.

In 2006, 77 waste management and remediation services workers were killed, compared to 79 in 2005, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The incidents could be written off as an unfortunate part of doing business. But increasingly, companies are refusing to accept accidents as inevitable. Instead, they're creating a “culture of safety,” a term that has become a familiar part of the industry's lexicon.

Collection Protection

Of the waste-related fatalities in 2006, 40 occurred during solid waste collection operations. (Eight were related to solid waste landfills and four to material recovery facilities.) Accordingly, the industry has directed much of its safety efforts toward collection. “There's been a lot of focus on collector training,” says Jeremy O'Brien, director of applied research for the Silver Spring, Md.-based Solid Waste Association of North America. “There's also continued interest in automated collection vehicles to reduce worker liability. The less times the driver has to get out of the truck, the better.”

Automation is one obvious way to help prevent deaths and injuries from lifting heavy containers. A number of other factors are helping as well, including making trucks and workers more visible. Phoenix-based Allied Waste Industries Inc., for instance, is conducting a pilot program in which strobes and bright colors are added to vehicles. Since many drivers start their routes before the sun rises, it's also important to light the areas where workers enter and exit the trucks. In addition, the industry has placed more of an emphasis on the collection workers wearing reflective equipment.

A multitude of new devices are available to improve driver safety. Cameras mounted inside the cab record video and audio of drivers braking hard or swerving, among other triggers, for analysis. Radar-based backup sensors are more effective than older versions based on infrared that would go off “when dirt got kicked up,” says Mike Lambert, director of corporate safety for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Republic Services.

Additionally, auto-adjust mirror systems prevent a driver from having to get out of the cab and manually move the mirrors. Larry Stone, safety director for Cincinnati-based Rumpke Consolidated Cos., says his firm is experimenting with a climbing-harness device that could reduce fall hazards when workers try to retrieve litter from the tops of trucks.

But technology is far from a silver bullet. “Those types of things, when applied properly, provide incremental improvement,” Lambert says. “There's no one big thing.” That's why driver training programs are so important.

Rumpke makes all new drivers complete at least two days of in-class training. They are able to move on only after they've satisfied the trainers. The drivers then go through anywhere from three days to three weeks of field training. If an employee isn't progressing, the company invests more time in his training. Then it's time for driver observation. “Observation programs are a critical component of any good safety program,” says David Biderman, general counsel for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA).

Rumpke aggressively observes new drivers, even though all of the firm's drivers are subject to observation on any given day. In fact, 10 percent of the fleet is observed every week.

Attitude Check

The most innovative technology and most comprehensive safety manuals, however, can't prevent accidents if workers don't have the right attitude. “If you want to affect the safety of the organization, you need to pay attention to the attitude of the employees,” Stone says. “Find out what the problem is and why they're unhappy. Is it their route assignment or their supervisor? People with good attitudes and work ethics are safe employees.”

In response to inter-departmental conflicts that can distract from focusing on safety, Rumpke has implemented the “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” program. If a dispatcher is complaining about someone in the sales department, he gets sent to work with the sales person for a day. “It makes them become less critical,” Stone says.

Bad attitudes also result in employee turnover, which is one of the biggest impediments to safety, Stone says. Part of the “Reality of Rumpke” video that the firm shows to new workers profiles veteran employees who enjoy their jobs and how they've stayed with the company for so many years.

Crunching the Numbers

A number of factors are driving the industry's increasing interest in safety. “A lot of clients are demanding safety programs,” says Jerry Sjogren, safety director for Westboro, Mass.-based E.L. Harvey & Sons. “We have to have training and certification before we can bid on their jobs.”

Within the industry, Susan Eppes, president of Houston-based EST Solutions, a safety consulting firm, attributes the improvements in safety to high-level employees moving from company to company. “People can go from large companies to mid-size companies,” says Eppes, who credits Republic, Allied and Houston-based Waste Management with making safety a part of the industry's “core culture.”

“Managers learn safety at larger companies and then take it with them when they move on,” Eppes says.

But one of the most important factors has been the ability to pinpoint particular problems through data. “If you can't track it, you can't fix it,” Lambert says. “I'm in the second generation of safety people in the business. We've had access to data specific to the industry. Trends popped out.”

For instance, after graphing accidents for a 12-month period, Republic noticed that there was a spike in accidents in April and July. Lambert suspected it was a result of increased temperatures, so he went to the National Weather Service to find out the temperatures for those months. He discovered that during those two times of year, there had been a significant heat wave.

In response, Republic began addressing heat stress and how to prevent it, including properly hydrating before a shift. “It causes the inability to make rational decisions,” Lambert says. “[Educating workers about heat stress] doesn't eliminate those spikes, but it does reduce them.”

Stone had a similar experience. He explains that five to six years ago, insurance companies measured incidents based on accidents per mile. “But that's not a fair measurement in the waste industry,” he says. “Guys may drive 25 to 35 miles to their route and then spend five hours driving six miles.” So, Rumpke began tracking the frequency of accidents against labor hours. “We established a measurement that makes sense to employees,” he says.

In another example, Waste Management began its “Drop 10” program to prevent rollovers in vehicles after analyzing its own accident data, Eppes says. The company determined that they could reduce the amount of rollovers by instructing employees to drive 10 miles below the speed limit when going around turns.

Tracking data has another key purpose: getting the attention of the federal government. Safety officials from Waste Management, Republic and Allied, along with representatives from NSWMA, recently met with the federal Department of Transportation and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to seek help in promoting the issue of waste driver safety.

The DOT encouraged them to continue keeping statistics on the problem. “It's a little disheartening,” Lambert says. “But that's the nature of the beast. So, we're tracking the issues.”

Room to Grow

Until fatality and injury rates reach zero, there always will be room for improvement. There's a growing awareness of the need to emphasize safety at MRFs, O'Brien says. “In collection, there's been a recognition that there's a problem, and it's being addressed,” he says. “The problem is just being recognized in MRFs.” [The November Waste Age story “Sorting Out Safety,” p. 38, addresses this issue in greater depth.]

Eppes adds that some mid-size and smaller firms aren't making safety enough of a priority. “Some people don't know there are [American National Standards Institute] standards or what they are,” she says. “We need to get them to realize safety doesn't cost as much anymore.”

Biderman agrees. He says that while some small companies have very good training and other safety programs, many don't. He adds that small waste firms appear to account for a majority of the accidents. NSWMA is trying to remedy this by reaching out to haulers through its safety programs.

Worker injury resulting from improper waste disposal by customers also remains an issue. O'Brien mentions there's an ongoing discussion about how fluorescent bulbs, which release mercury when broken, should best be collected.

Stone has a similar concern about the proper disposal of hypodermic needles. “The area isn't always regulated,” he says. “There's usually information on how to dispose of them, but it's not important to people.”

Once problems are identified, however, the industry often finds ways to address them. This is true at landfills, where the large equipment alone creates potentially hazardous conditions. For this reason, O'Brien says some landfills are moving away from using a spotter, who directs traffic on the working face. Also, landfills are keeping the firms' vehicles separate from those of residents so that not everyone tips at the same location, which prevents smaller vehicles from potentially being crushed by the larger equipment. Also, to improve driver focus, there's been a move toward air-conditioned cabs for compactors.

Wellness programs, such as those addressing ergonomics, also are becoming more popular. “Ten years ago, people thought ergonomics was a disease,” says Rob Espinosa, director of operations for Anchorage, Alaska-based Green Star Inc. “Now everything is designed around it.”

E.L. Harvey & Sons, for instance, has had a surgeon talk about the importance of stretching before work. “One prevented back injury can save thousands of dollars,” Sjogren says.

Reaching Out

As the two Nov. 28 accidents demonstrate, seemingly uncontrollable factors, such as civilian drivers, can cause deaths. As a result, companies and industry associations are getting the community involved in safety issues.

In January, NSWMA plans to air public service announcements in eight to 12 markets in the eastern half of the United States. Because accidents seem to occur in smaller communities, the announcements will air in mid-size media markets, Biderman says. The intention is to continue spreading the word about the industry's ongoing “Slow Down to Get Around” campaign that encourages drivers to exercise extra care when maneuvering around refuse vehicles.

This spring, NSWMA also is scheduled to conduct driver safety training in 12 locations over a four-week period.

Rumpke is reaching out to young drivers through its “Students Against Crashes” program. Part of the program's goal is to show employees that the company is committed to safety, even outside the workplace. Program representatives visit schools, teaching students about auto crashes through math or physics lessons. So far, the company has reached 3,500 students in three states.

Regardless of their approach to safety, operations with successful programs know it's an ongoing process that takes commitment. Sjogren says this sometimes means telling employees not to do a job or not to service a customer if it's a dangerous situation, such as one involving heavy ice. “That's not an easy thing to do,” he says.

Companies that fail to make this kind of commitment can't be surprised when an accident does happen. “If you have kids that come home with an ‘F’ on their report card, as a parent, you were asleep at the wheel the entire semester,” Stone says. “Safety is no different.”

Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a contributing writer based in Laguna Beach, Calif. She is a former managing editor of Waste Age.