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Safety First: Safety in Numbers

Achieving safe operations throughout the industry requires a variety of approaches.

The solid waste industry received further confirmation last month from the federal government that its safety record has improved in recent years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the injury and illness rate for waste collection workers declined more than 21 percent in 2009 compared to 2008. This decrease is far greater than the 7.5 percent decline reported for all U.S. employees in the same time frame.

Digging into the numbers reveals that in 2009, the injury and illness rate for solid waste collection employees was 6.1 per 100 full-time employees. In 2008, the rate was 7.7. Injuries and illnesses for solid waste landfill employees increased slightly from 5.5 to 5.9, though as recently as 2006, the rate was 8.0.

However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and others are concerned employers are underreporting injuries and illnesses, and that employee incentive programs encourage workers not to report certain injuries. OSHA has a National Emphasis Program (NEP) on recordkeeping and is conducting lots of inspections of employers throughout the United States to investigate this issue.

Was your company’s 2009 injury and illness rate above 6.1? Unless you work for one of the larger companies in the solid waste industry, it probably was. Do you feel good about working at an employer with an above-average injury and illness rate? I didn’t think so. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

The answer to that question will differ from company to company. Although waste collection companies are similar, their lines of business, geographic locations, truck fleets and safety cultures differ. Some haulers operate a handful of residential or commercial routes in suburban locations in one state. Other haulers may have a mix of commercial, roll-off and residential work in urban, suburban and rural locations. Some haulers only have automated vehicles while others may rely on manual rear loaders. As a result, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to injuries and accidents involving solid waste collection employees.

Instead, managers and supervisors need to review their injury logs and accident data, and identify the most common and most costly injuries and accidents. For some companies, it may be backing. For others, it might be strains and sprains. Once you have identified your principal problem areas, it will be easier to address them — and to reduce your accident and injury rates in the future.

Some of the common solutions to these hazards include additional training, improved route observation, buying new trucks, adding new safety-related equipment or technology for the trucks, and making sure front-line employees are always wearing applicable personal protective equipment (PPE). Other than my kids’ messy rooms, nothing upsets me more than seeing a helper who’s not wearing a high-visibility vest on the street at dawn!

In the coming year, NSWMA and WASTEC will continue to provide tools for both local governments and solid waste companies to reduce accidents and injuries. These tools include the Be Safe, Be Proud safety videos, our weekly safety newsletter, frequent regional safety seminars, and OSHA/Department of Transportation compliance assistance.

Don’t wait until the day after one of your workers gets hurt to get serious about safety. Correcting employee behaviors and bad habits should be a central focus of your safety efforts. The BLS data for 2009 shows that many in the industry are very serious about reducing injuries and are seeing results. What about you?

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 davidb@envasns.org.

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