Recent data released by the federal government concerning solid waste industry fatalities confirms the progress the industry is making on improving safety for employees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 19 waste collection employee fatalities in 2009, compared to 31 in 2008.
Overall, workplace fatalities for the “waste management and remediation services” sector, which includes the solid waste industry, fell from 74 to 43 during the same period. The approximately 40 percent reduction in workplace fatalities among solid waste employees in 2009 substantially exceeds the still-impressive 17 percent reduction for all U.S. employees.
This decline in solid waste worker fatalities is a great achievement and is due to a variety of factors. These include increased automation, reduced volumes during the recession, a greater focus on operational safety, and technological advances that allow employers to better monitor drivers and vehicles while they are on their routes. Overall, there has been a substantial change in the safety culture at many companies in the industry, and, in particular, at the larger national companies.
The National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) has analyzed the 2009 workplace fatalities of solid waste employees. NSWMA’s data does not mirror precisely the BLS data, as NSWMA’s data includes certain fatalities involving temporary workers, long-haul drivers and municipal employees that in all likelihood are not included in BLS’s numbers.
The majority of waste industry worker fatalities in 2009 occurred in connection with waste collection. Among waste collectors, the leading cause of death was being hit by another vehicle. These “struck by” accidents resulted in seven fatalities last year — and numerous injuries. In several incidents, a collection worker was hit while loading the truck.
I suspect that in some of these cases, the motorist was distracted by texting, talking on a cell phone or some other factor. There have been at least four similar struck by fatalities so far in 2010.
Another theme that shows up in the NSWMA data is bad decision-making. A driver in Kansas was not wearing a safety belt and was killed when his truck turned over. A helper in Alabama died after he jumped out of the truck when the brakes failed. In late 2008, two drivers died chasing a runaway truck. Several employees suffered fatal injuries because they failed to lockout and tag out a truck, compactor or other piece of equipment.
Perhaps the most interesting pattern is the disproportionate percentage of worker fatalities at companies that are not NSWMA members. Although NSWMA represents about 70 percent of the private sector solid waste industry, NSWMA members were involved in about 40 percent of the fatal worker accidents. This trend has continued in 2010.
Although being an NSWMA member is certainly no guarantee that a company will not suffer a fatal accident, the constant flow of safety information and training opportunities — including the weekly “Safety Monday” newsletter — provides useful content for association members to use at safety committee meetings and toolbox talks to help reduce accidents and injuries. To reach others, including local governments, NSWMA is expanding its social media outreach (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) and is working with the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to develop additional communication channels to the solid waste industry.
The good news is that the industry had a 40 percent reduction in fatalities last year. The bad news is that waste collection is still the seventh most dangerous job in the country, and solid waste companies and sanitation departments are involved in too many accidents. Let’s commit to improving on our 2009 safety performance and to reducing the frequency of fatal accidents involving our vehicles and employees.
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.