The economy simply can no longer be the excuse as to why safety is not a top-tier priority in the waste and recycling industry. During recent challenging times, companies of all shapes and sizes elected to adopt a cost-cutting focus just to survive; causing many to rethink their investment (time and money) in programs related to fleet management, and/or safety.
As a result, tragically, in 2013, the number of fatalities in our industry increased by over 25 percent. This spike moved the waste and recycling industry up to the fifth most dangerous profession; up one spot from the year before.
One imperative should be on everyone’s mind: How to increase the odds of getting drivers home safely to their families each and every day.
For the most part, this industry has a bad reputation outside our own community. Our teams work long, hard hours, to ensure the proper waste disposal needs of communities and businesses all across the world. The unfortunate reality is that many citizens and regulators only think of us when something goes wrong. There must be a dramatic industry mindset shift away from one that accidents are beyond our control—they just happen. If you are not already there, the evidence outlined in this article must convince each reader that safety has to be woven into the core culture of each and every company.
Traditional Approaches to Injuries
Mindsets around safety in our industry have frequently been based from “nature of the beast” to “the employee has got to be held accountable … I can’t hold their hand.” Driving a compactor truck loaded with nearly 10 tons of waste is an extremely dangerous profession.
What must be made clear is that any profession can be made dangerous while operating with a laissez faire attitude. Safety starts at the top of the organizational chart and must be constantly visible. If safety is driven home on a routine basis with a set of professionally crafted operating procedures, the waste industry can be thought of in the same light as our other trucking brethren. Insisting that a driver is 100 percent to blame and responsible is like saying a sales individual is in charge of the overall financial performance of the company. While they drive growth that directly impacts the bottom line, they are only part of the solution; not the end all/be all.
The most prevalent and damaging company environment is the all too familiar lip service to risk and injury mitigation efforts. In this scenario, some signs are put up in the break room, and a safety-first pizza lunch is provided every once in a while. These gestures are not entirely wrong, but they must be included in a much larger overall safety-imperative effort. One driver, making one bad decision, can completely change the entire direction of a company.
Damaging Consequences from Traditional Mindsets
There are significant, and often unrecognized, outcomes from injuries within our industry, including but not limited to:
- increased out of pocket expenses
- the inability to bid on certain jobs
- rising insurance premiums
- declining customer satisfaction and retention rates
- weakening driver attraction/retention and absenteeism
A company doing the bare minimum in regards to protecting its most essential assets (its people), is much more likely to experience downward spiraling financial performance. The next time a garbage truck passes, wonder whether or not the team carrying out that service is satisfied with what they are doing, or if they are just putting in their time. It might change how close you are willing to drive hugging the center line.
Due to being in the high-frequency/high-severity quadrant when it comes to employee injuries, waste and recycling companies are discovering it is increasingly difficult to find more than a handful of insurance carriers that provide coverage for our industry. Carriers are funny—fond of premiums. Excessive claims? Not so much. The rising litigation costs, followed by increasing fatality rates, are ugly to see. Barring companies embracing the safety imperative, as opposed to giving it lip service, these trends will only get worse.
The Good News
The waste industry does have a lot of things going for it as far as finding well qualified drivers. They are home at night. The hours worked often leave free time during the middle of the day for employees to take care of personal needs. Drivers are familiar with routes and work within a limited radius. Helpers are used in residential vehicles. And the weather does not affect their weekly number of hours; as is often the case in other trucking industries. The waste and recycling industry is generally thought of as stable in terms of hours worked and providing steady pay. This being said, employees have to know that they are regarded as valuable tools that need to be consistently sharpened.
So how do you know you have an effective program in place that will generate long-term success, stability, and reverse the trend of profit drain? It all starts with the Proactive Risk Approach (PRA). This PRA is based on a sequential and protected process.
- Assess your current situation and find the deficiencies. You are only as good as your weakest link.
- After the gap identification, address the low-hanging-fruit improvement opportunities that you have known about for a while, but have put off, or planned for a later time.
- The most important aspect of a proficient PRA is to not stop here! Companies must invest in a multiple-prong approach that addresses the true problems, not simply masks the symptoms.
These additional and essential steps are outlined next.
Core Elements of An Effective PRA
1. Driver Selection: This is an ongoing initiative; not an event! What happens if you lose your best driver tomorrow? How do you replace him? Creating a list of qualified prospects and working it frequently allows for a much less severe situation than someone who must start the process from scratch. Lowering your standards should never be an option in the hiring process. If you don’t find someone up to your standards, do not force a hire!
2. Creating a Safety First Culture: Such an environment can’t be faked. The buy-in must come from the top down. Keep in mind, your team members will listen to what you say much less than constantly watching what you do.
3. Safety Training: Training is not only for new hires. This must be an ongoing initiative that is regularly enhanced and encourages everyone to be on guard and at their best at all times. Creating an open communication line with all employees strengthens any safety culture.
4. Maintaining Visibility: The PRA cannot be a flavor of the month type of program. Employees must know who they can turn to, and be encouraged to identify ways to improve safety, and the overall company culture.
5. Results Monitoring: Any effective PRA must quantify the program outcomes. This can be done in a number of different ways (sick days taken, tardiness, increased retention rates, customer service rating, yards collected per hour, maintenance dollars vs. fines, etc.). Let everyone know the metrics and turn it into a friendly competition!
6. Rewarding Improved Performance: Incentives must be provided for clean MVR’s and roadside inspections, turning in all paperwork correctly and on time, improved customer retention rates and customer surveys, etc.
7. Regular Insurance Program Assessment: This ensures the retention vs. transfer balance of potential threats in focus, and will gauge if your limits are optimal given current market conditions and risk appetite.
8. Fine Tune: There is no one program that is going to be perfect for every company, and even if it were, things change. The culture of the company is going to evolve, so be flexible in finding what works for your company as long as safety remains high on everyone’s mind.
Most companies don’t have the resources to set up and maintain a PRA program on their own. It is essential to team with the right partners in this space. Seek out firms that have experience in our industry, have the resources available (not farmed out to others), the knowledge and working capital to provide access to external resources, and a documented track record of success mitigating injuries and overall losses with their waste hauling/recycling clients.
It is never too early to begin improving your overall safety program. The returns are excellent and gained in the short- and long-term. Start 2015 with a ramped up safety culture driven by a PRA, and you will experience an exceptional ROI.
Steven J. Billings, MBA, is a risk advisor in Ascension’s waste management practice. George H. Lucas, Ph. D., is director of coaching and learning with Schul + Baker Partners.