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Safety First

Safety First: Speed Bump

Waste collection worker fatalities increased by 30 percent in 2010 compared to 2009, reversing a decade long decline. The difficult question is whether this is a one year “blip” or reflects a new trend for the solid waste industry.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) issues an annual census of workplace fatalities. In August 2011, BLS announced there were 26 “refuse and recyclable collector” workplace fatalities in 2010, compared to 20 in 2009. The number of worker deaths reported by BLS closely matches data collected by the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA).

There are several disturbing trends in the BLS data, which have continued into 2011. First, collection employees being struck by motorists continues to be a leading cause of workplace fatalities for collection employees. David Utterback, a senior health scientist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), reviewed the BLS data and identified six more “struck bys” in 2010 than in 2009. With an ever-increasing number of motorists texting while driving, talking on their cell phones or distracted for other reasons, this is not surprising.

A second trend in last year’s fatality data is the disproportionate number of worker fatalities at small haulers or municipal sanitation departments. About a dozen small haulers’ employees died in workplace accidents in 2010, as did workers at nine sanitation departments. This pattern has continued in the current year, with a majority of 2011’s worker fatalities in solid waste occurring at these same types of employers.

As if to reinforce these trends, there were three fatal accidents last month; two involved small haulers and in the third incident, a collection employee behind a stopped yard waste truck was struck and killed by a motorist. The two incidents involving small haulers – which occurred in the same week – appear to have been caused by employees making bad decisions.

First, on Labor Day, a 17-year-old helper was riding on the front of a collection vehicle in Randolph County, Indiana. The truck reportedly went over “a rough spot” or a dip in the road and the employee fell off, was run over by the truck and killed. The driver of the truck was the deceased’s older brother.

Several days later, a 62 year old driver in Texas was killed when he fell off the top of the truck. He reportedly climbed on top of his truck to dislodge some wires that had gotten stuck in the truck’s arms. The following week, a yard waste collection driver was killed when a car crushed him against the back of his truck in Florida.

The BLS data and these recent incidents are unfortunate reminders that we can’t let up in our push to improve worker safety in the solid waste industry. We must recommit to doing those things that experience has shown makes a difference in keeping people safe. Front line employees need training and coaching on what to do – and not to do – on the route and at disposal facilities. Supervisors need to observe these employees and correct unsafe behaviors. Management needs to make sure sufficient safety resources are available. If we don’t keep doing these things, and do them better, I am concerned that the historic decline in solid waste worker fatality and injury rates over the past decade may not continue.

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