The collection worker fatality rate for the solid waste industry increased significantly in 2011.
Or did it?
In September, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) issued a preliminary report on worker fatalities in the United States for 2011. The BLS report included a chart identifying the 10 occupations with the highest worker fatality rates, which unfortunately, has always included “refuse and recycling collectors.” The chart stated 34 employees in that occupation died in workplace accidents last year, which was eight more (a 30-percent increase) than the previous year. This, according to BLS, made solid waste collection the fourth most dangerous job in the country.
This BLS data was not consistent with information collected by the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). For years, NSWMA has collected and analyzed fatal accident data involving the solid waste and recycling industry. It obtains this information from a variety of sources, including members, the Internet and state safety agencies. Although NSWMA’s data usually tracks the BLS data, BLS reported a substantially higher number of collection fatalities in 2011.
NSWMA contacted BLS in October and obtained additional information on their data set. Importantly, BLS acknowledged that eight of the 34 deaths were workers who are coded as waste collectors but are in the merchant wholesaler (i.e., scrap) industry. As a result, when those incidents are excluded, the 2011 number is exactly the same as the 2010 number. Still too many, but not a 30-percent increase.
In fact, in response to questions raised by NSWMA concerning the BLS data, David Utterback, a scientist at the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) who follows the waste industry, determined the number of solid waste collection industry employees who died on the job last year actually declined from 27 to 24.
BLS will be releasing updated reports on its 2011 worker fatality data in the coming months. BLS is likely to report a slight increase in overall solid waste and recycling industry employee fatalities last year, primarily due to the sharp uptick in fatal accidents at recycling and composting facilities.
What does this mean? We can take some comfort in the fact that we are not experiencing a significant increase in fatal collection-related accidents. Of course, any accident or injury is one too many, but it appears our collective efforts to reduce accidents in the industry continue to be successful.
The BLS data and the confusion created by this initial report is a reminder that safety data always needs to be reviewed carefully. Because of how the federal government collects and categorizes labor-related information, its safety data concerning the solid waste and recycling industry must be reviewed keeping this in mind.
One of NSWMA’s most important roles is analyzing safety data and trends from a variety of sources and helping employers and workers understand the principal causes of accidents and injuries, and instructing on how to prevent them.
Whether 34 or 24 collection workers died last year isn’t the point. We can do better. And so far in 2012, we have. NSWMA is aware of only 18 collection worker fatalities through November 1, and only two deaths at recycling facilities. NSWMA will continue to play a critical role in helping all employers in the solid waste and recycling industries reduce these tragic and often avoidable incidents.