After years of ranking among the five most dangerous occupations in the United States as measured by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), solid waste collection fatalities decreased substantially in 2007. Although the 18 worker fatalities identified by BLS that year are still too many, they reflected a more than 50 percent decrease from the prior year.
However, the first three months of 2009 saw a significant uptick in collection fatalities. Twelve workers were killed while on their routes, and a mind-boggling nine died during a 15-day stretch in March.
The victims included a driver in Oregon who died after he went inside a truck body without locking out and tagging out the vehicle and a driver who was killed when he overturned his truck in Kansas. Other March victims included a driver in Arizona who fell into the hopper from the top of a truck, a Texas worker who was crushed by a container, and an Alabama employee who died when he tried to jump out of a truck whose brakes had failed. Not surprisingly, four of the fatalities were caused when motorists struck and killed collection employees.
The fatalities involved large companies, small haulers and local governments, and occurred all over the United States. Although some in the industry instinctually blame the employee, the blame game does not help the industry reduce the frequency of these types of accidents, and there may be an explanation beyond employee negligence. Maybe the worker is rushing because he needs to pick up 1,000 stops in eight hours. Maybe double-sided pick up is not the safest way to collect residential trash and recyclables.
One thing is for sure: If this epidemic of fatalities continues, it is going to draw the attention of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and others. When there were several container-related deaths in New England in 2003, OSHA issued a national advisory alerting solid waste employers and employees about this hazard.
Under President Bush, OSHA entered into numerous partnerships with employers and issued lots of advisories, but was accused of not doing enough regulating and enforcement. The Obama Administration can be expected to have different priorities. Whomever President Obama nominates as administrator of OSHA can be expected to push for increased funding, propose new regulations and more rigorously enforce existing OSHA standards.
Later this year, after the new OSHA administrator is sworn in, we do not want him or her to have a report on the desk about a big increase in solid waste worker fatalities. Waste companies and local governments need to redouble their safety efforts now — despite the recession. This means making sure everyone gets proper safety training, follows the ANSI Z245 standards, wears personal protective equipment (PPE) and that job observations take place regularly.
Safety is a critical investment in your workers, your company and your communities. If you are not willing to make sure your workers are operating safely, I am sure that OSHA and others will be more than glad to do so.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.