Safety First: Winter of Our Discontent

February fatalities point to the need for industry to continue its safety efforts.

I am so glad February is over. I bet you are also. Within a week, two major snowstorms hit the Washington, D.C. area, closing schools and shutting the federal government down for a week. Dallas had its biggest snowstorm ever a few weeks later, and the New York City area was buried by up to two feet of snow at the end of the month. Didn't make picking the trash up any easier.

It wasn't a good month safety-wise for the solid waste industry, either. Four workers died in workplace accidents over an eight-day period during February. The fatalities occurred in Connecticut, New York, North Carolina and Ohio. In both the Connecticut and Ohio accidents, a helper for a small hauler was backed into by a garbage truck on the route. The North Carolina incident occurred at a county landfill and involved a spotter provided by a temporary agency being struck by landfill equipment. The New York incident occurred at a recycling facility in Brooklyn when a forklift driver moving bales struck a manager, though it is not clear whether he had fallen on the ground prior to being struck.

None of these accidents occurred because a motorist was distracted by his or her cell phone or GPS system. None of these accidents occurred because a customer put combustible or infectious materials in the trash, or did something foolish at a disposal facility. We have no one to blame for these tragedies but ourselves.

Why were the two helpers directly behind the trucks when the vehicles were backing? Why did a spotter get hit by a compactor? Why didn't the forklift operator see the guy he hit? I am sure the companies and local governments involved are all investigating the cause of these accidents, and I suspect the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will do so as well.

What common theme connects these accidents? All four fatalities occurred at small companies or local governments that are not members of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) or the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA). Now, I'm not saying that being an EIA or NSWMA member would have prevented these accidents from occurring, but none of these companies receive the associations' weekly safety newsletter, have purchased any of our safety videos or have attended any of our frequent safety training programs. An interesting trend in the federal government's data is that a disproportionate number of the workplace fatalities in the solid waste industry take place at small haulers and local governments, many of which are not EIA or NSWMA members. Nearly 60 percent of the worker fatalities in 2009 in the solid waste industry occurred at non-members (by comparison, NSWMA represents more than two-thirds of the private sector solid waste industry, as measured by revenue).

Looking to improve your safety performance in 2010? Review your OSHA logs and accident reports, and look for patterns and trends. Figure out what types of injuries and accidents keep repeating, determine the root cause of these events, and train your workers on what they need to do (and more importantly, not do).

Make sure supervisors are performing route observations and coaching the workers who they are observing. Consider whether additional training, new technologies or different equipment might help keep your workers safe. And yes, consider whether joining EIA or NSWMA might help you and your workers be safer this year.

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David Biderman is general counsel for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. He oversees the organization's safety programs.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at