Recently, a material recovery facility (MRF) maintenance technician at a new single-stream plant scaled a ladder to check a conveyor belt. Some plastic bags had wrapped around part of the belt and were affecting operations.
The tech leaned in to get a better look, and the ladder tipped. Instinctively, he stuck out his arm to catch himself. Instead, a spinning pulley caught his hand. He lived, but the pulley ripped off a piece of his hand.
Question: Was this the result of (a) failing to follow ladder safety rules or (b) a larger safety issue characteristic of new, vastly more sophisticated single-stream MRFs? Answer: While the tech needed a ladder safety review, the real problem had more to do with the sophisticated technologies and complex design characteristic of today's new single-stream facilities. Observers attribute the accident to difficult maintenance access in an area where a permanent workspace should have been installed.
Over the past two decades, the recycling industry became expert at safety for dual-stream MRFs, says Susan Eppes, owner and principal with EST Solutions Inc., a Houston-based safety consulting firm. “In dual-stream MRFs, safety focused on the sorters — the people on the floor doing the work — and on maintenance technicians handling preventive maintenance and repairs,” Eppes says. “Those systems were simple compared to the complex single-stream MRFs of today. This is a whole different ball game.”
Single-stream facilities operate differently than their dual-stream kin. According to Eppes, single-stream workers no longer sort as much by hand. Instead, they manage automated sorting equipment via control panels built onto the walls of the MRF, high above the equipment. Their workspaces are platforms built to provide access to the control panels. The platforms use walls, high railings and plenty of signs to promote fall protection.
Quality control sorters also work on the platforms, along the conveyor lines, again above and away from the heavy equipment on the floor. They, too, must follow fall protection procedures, while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, hard hats, goggles and so on — all of which are familiar to sorters.
While these are not unimportant safety considerations, they are familiar to experienced MRF sorters. Maintenance technicians, however, face dramatically different safety challenges than they used to.
“There is a lot more equipment,” says Tom Powers, safety and environment director for recycling services with Houston-based Waste Management. “For example, there are more screens, and the screens are configured in many layers. In addition, there are new advanced machines like optical sorters. Each piece of equipment is energized and must be locked out and tagged out prior to maintenance. That means identifying the sources of energy, and developing safe procedures for locking out each piece of equipment.”
Because single-stream facilities are so new, the safety protocols for their problems, like the problem of plastic wrapping around components of conveyor belts, are only just being developed. And so over the next couple of years, industry safety professionals will be working to re-invent safety for today's new single-stream MRFs.
Over the years, the solid waste industry has developed an effective, collaborative approach to developing safety policies and procedures and spreading the information to workers on plant and tipping floors. Today, companies are using that experience to address emerging safety issues at single-stream MRFs.
What they learn will eventually find its way into the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard covering MRFs. For example, the MRF standard, ANSI Z245.41, last revised in 2008, will be reworked again in three years. The committee that will do that boasts a roster of consultants, company safety directors and association officials from across the industry.
Suggestions for the MRF standard revision will bubble up from continuing collaborations among solid waste companies. “We talk regularly with our sister companies,” says Larry Stone, director of corporate safety with Cincinnati-based Rumpke Consolidated Cos. “E. L. Harvey and Sons in Massachusetts, Waste Pro in Florida and many others — we have a good open network for safety communications.”
The collaboration among companies goes further, thanks to David Biderman, general council and director of safety with the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). Under Biderman's direction, NSWMA created “Safety Monday,” a weekly e-mail newsletter for its members.
Biderman also coordinates a kind of safety information clearinghouse. “I often receive safety inquiries from industry people,” he says. “If I don't know the answer, I'll send the question to the members of the NSWMA safety committee. Within a day, I'll reply with eight or nine policies and procedures addressing the problem. It's an incredible resource that enables us to spread proven safety practices across the industry.” To avoid charges of collusion, Biderman maintains the anonymity of the participants.
Once established, safety policies and procedures must flow to the people doing the work. “Any safety program is about changing behavior to eliminate risk,” says Shawn Mandel, manager of safety at Phoenix-based Republic Services. “We educate employees about hazards and safety procedures, and we reinforce those messages every day. “
Daily reinforcement of safety messages works. Using that technique, both Waste Management and Republic Services drove down their recordable accident rates significantly. Between 2000 and 2008, Waste Management improved its total recordable accident rate by 83 percent, according to Powers. As for MRFs specifically, the company's total recordable incident rate reached 1.92 per 100 full-time employees in 2008, an all-time low that few other companies can match.
In the year following the completion of the merger between the former Allied Waste and Republic Services, a transition period usually characterized by errors in judgment and procedure, injury claim records indicate that the merged Republic drove down the frequency of incidents. Post-collection claims, which include claims made at MRFs, transfer stations and landfills, declined by 23 percent.
Industry observers say that the solid waste industry is among a very few industries to take such a collaborative approach to safety. The continuing collaboration enables the industry to address new challenges as they arise. So in a way, the industry is constantly re-inventing its safety policies and procedures — not just for MRFs, but also for all operations connected to solid waste.
Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.
TRANSFER STATION SAFETY
Transfer stations — as well as dual stream- and single-stream MRFs — have tipping floors where truck drivers tip their loads and then walk behind their trucks to clean out what remains. While on foot, they must avoid heavy rubber-tire equipment. Likewise, the heavy equipment operators must avoid the pedestrians.
Tipping floor policies dictate safety on the floor. “The policies generally require truck drivers to remain within a certain number of feet of their vehicles,” says Susan Eppes, a principal with Houston-based EST Solutions Inc., a safety consulting firm. “Heavy equipment operators must then keep their vehicles a greater distance away from the trucks.”
If the policy is followed rigorously, a front loader or other vehicle simply cannot get to an individual on foot, even if the driver can't see the person. Space management is the key to tipping floor safety. Other safety hazards that transfer stations must address include fires and public drop-off areas.
The industry is currently developing an ANSI standard to address transfer station safety. Currently, the only standards exist in the form of OSHA regulations, which address hazards instead of specific facilities. While OSHA's regulations require compliance, the ANSI standard being developed will help improve transfer station safety by applying OSHA's regulations to the specific hazards of transfer stations.