Safety First: On the Right Track

Waste industry's focus on safety should provide inspiration to other sectors.

Fatal accidents killing both employees and customers. Questions about whether workers are following safety procedures and the amount of training provided to them.

Nope, it's not a solid waste company. It's the Washington, D.C., area subway system that's experiencing this safety crisis.

Over the past eight months, a series of high-profile accidents have occurred on the once highly regarded “Metro” subway system . In June 2009, one train crashed into the back of another train, killing the driver and eight passengers, and injuring more than 80 others. Two months later, a maintenance employee was killed by a gravel-spreading machine. In September, a worker was struck and killed by a subway train, and this January, two maintenance employees were killed by a backing vehicle on the tracks.

The unprecedented number of fatal accidents in a short period of time has called into question the safety of the D.C. Metro system. After the June accident, some riders began avoiding the first car in a train to increase their odds of survival in the event of another accident. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the cause of that accident, and the results will be announced later this year.

Metro's general manager recently announced his resignation, and its board of directors is trying to determine how to address the system's ongoing safety problems as well as how to restore employee and public confidence. Even before the accidents, Metro's reliability and quality of service had declined substantially, with overcrowded trains and unexplained delays becoming an unfortunate part of the Metro experience.

Perhaps Metro should look to companies in the solid waste industry for inspiration. Safety has become a core value at many solid waste firms. The result has been a steady decline in fatalities and accidents at these companies — and in the industry as a whole. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the injury rate for the solid waste industry has declined by more than 25 percent over the past five years.

However, problems still remain. In January, a New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) employee was struck and killed by a truck in Queens. According to the media reports, this was the 10th workplace death of a DSNY employee in seven years. Small haulers and local governments continue to have a disproportionate number of the fatal accidents.

In 2009, the majority of fatal accidents involving solid waste vehicles and employees occurred at small haulers or local governments. And the first month of 2010 has continued that troubling pattern. In addition to the DSNY fatality, a driver at a small hauler in Ohio was killed when he was struck by a vehicle while crossing a street. Solid waste firms and municipal sanitation systems need to keep their focus on safety and remember that while customer service is important, safety needs to be paramount.

The Metro system is doing the right thing by investigating the causes of recent accidents and making changes to procedures and updating its equipment. Hopefully, this will lead to fewer accidents. Many of Metro's accidents involved backing and inattentive drivers, issues familiar to those in the industry. Solid waste companies and municipal sanitation systems should not wait until they have a series of serious accidents before taking safety seriously.

Related Stories

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