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COVID Rates Significantly Lower for Solid Waste Collection/Facility Workers

TAGS: Safety
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Thankfully, the rate of increase of COVID cases is slowing.  Nonetheless, as of early June, according to the CDC, more than twenty thousand new COVID cases are still occurring daily across the U.S. and the death rate is more than 1,000 per day. As an essential workforce that collects and manages the garbage generated by each and every person across North America, the question naturally arises as to how solid waste collection and management personnel have fared relative to that of the general populace.

A survey was conducted of private solid waste haulers and facility owners to assess COVID rates in the U.S. and Canada. Conducted by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), the survey encompassed nearly 100,000 employees across North America.  This comprised 35 percent of the approximately 248,000 solid waste collection and facility workers in the U.S (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and 16 percent of the nearly 70,000 Canadian solid waste personnel (EcoCanada).

From the survey, there were 372 confirmed cases and 6 deaths for personnel in the U.S. and 20 confirmed cases and no deaths in Canada.  Hospitalizations were also recorded.  Nine states (IL, LA, MA, MI, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VA) accounted for roughly 55 percent of all cases while the remaining states contributed from 3 percent to less than 1 percent of total cases on a per-state basis.  

The states with the highest number of cases in the solid waste industry were generally in line with states that had the highest cases for the general U.S. population.  From a regional standpoint, nearly half of confirmed cases were in the Northeast (see table below). In Canada, Ontario and Quebec accounted for 81 percent of all cases, similar to that of the general population.

Percentage of COVID-19 Cases by U.S. Region for Solid Waste Collection/Facility Workforce1

Region

% of Cases

Northeast 

(CT, DE, ME, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, VA, WV)

47.6 %

Midwest 

(IL, IN, IA, KS, MI, MN, MO, NE, OH, WI)

20.7 %

Southeast 

(AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, SC, TN)

13.7 %

South Central 

(AR, LA, NM, OK, TX)

8.6 %

Pacific 

(AK, AZ, CA, HI, ID, NV, OR, WA)

4.8 %

Mountains/Plains 

(CO, MT, ND, SD, UT, WY)

4.6%

Total

100 %

1 Solid waste industry COVID data collected 5/14/20 – 5/29/2020.  Based on 372 cases.

COVID infections for the solid waste collection/facility personnel were approximately 10 percent and 25 percent lower than average infections in the U.S. and Canada, respectively (see table).  The mortality rate for the solid waste industry in the U.S. was nearly 4 times lower than that of the general population.

Incidences of COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations and Deaths:  Solid Waste Collection/Facility Workforce and General U.S./Canadian Populations1

 

United States

Canada

 

Gen. Population2

Solid Waste

Gen. Population2

Solid Waste

Confirmed Cases

0.47 %

0.41 %

0.21 %

0.16 %

Hospitalizations

0.052 %

0.049 %

0.01 %

0.01 %

Deaths

0.027 %

0.007 %

0.02%

No Deaths

1 Solid waste industry COVID data collected 5/14/20 – 5/29/2020.  General population COVID data from 5/22/2020 (CDC, Johns Hopkins, Canadian Provincial and Territorial Government websites).

2 Per capita rates based on 2019 U.S. and Canadian populations of 327.59 million (US Census Bureau) and 37.99 million (Statistics Canada)

Based on rates from this survey and total workforce numbers, the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths estimated for the solid waste industry in the U.S. and Canada, as of late May 2020, were:

  • Cases = 1,069 (U.S.), 125 (Canada)
  • Hospitalizations = 40 (U.S.), 7 (Canada)
  • Deaths = 17 (U.S.), cannot be estimated for Canada since none were identified from the survey

There are likely multiple factors contributing to the significantly lower number of cases and deaths in the solid waste industry relative to the general population. However, a number of key considerations include:

  • Industry Practices. The solid waste industry is highly regulated and has had for decades a strong focus on worker safety. Thus, it is possible that safety training and adherence to regulated guidelines and best practices may correlate to lower infection rates. Additional practices, such as the use of automated collection, likely also play a factor in reduced exposure in areas where residential collection is primarily done this way.  Despite this, pathways for exposure during off-work hours would still exist and be dictated by personal choices.
  • Age. Age has been noted as a factor contributing to higher chances of getting the virus.  Given they are employed, most solid waste employees are between the ages of 18 and 65 years old.  Thus, age-related complications in contracting and recovering from the virus are likely reduced.
  • Health. Due to the physical demands of many of the industry jobs, many personnel need to be reasonably healthy to perform the job.  Thus, underlying health conditions that may result in negative outcomes from COVID could be less frequent for solid waste personnel.

Regardless, additional research would be needed to confirm whether these variables strongly correlate to the lower infection rates and more favorable outcomes for solid waste workers relative to the broader population.

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