A Response on Solid Waste Industry Safety

The NWRA responds to a recent call to action on industry safety.

Sharon Kneiss, President & CEO

August 10, 2016

5 Min Read
A Response on Solid Waste Industry Safety

We applaud Kenneth M. Baylor’s “Call to Action” in his recent Waste360 editorial addressing his concerns for safety in the industry. In fact, last fall after the release of the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) injury, accident and fatality data, NWRA issued a similar urgent call to action to our members and the industry as a whole that called for new approaches to safety if vital progress was to be made in reducing the alarming rates reflected in the data. It was clear then, as it is now, that many past efforts were not working and a new, comprehensive and multi-pronged industry approach was needed if progress is to be made.

With that call to action, NWRA laid the groundwork for undertaking a new approach, unprecedented in our industry, to drive real improvement.

In March, we convened an industry-wide Safety Summit bringing together the leading minds in our industry and from other industries to outline what would become a measurable and actionable strategic plan to reduce fatalities, injuries and accidents. The result of the Summit was an aggressive plan that includes:

  • Achieving a zero fatality rate and a significant reduction in accidents,

  • Measuring progress against specific goals of the plan using real-time data from within the industry as well as charting our progress based on BLS data, which often takes more than a year to be compiled,

  • Facilitating sharing of best safety practices among NWRA members of all sizes,

  • Continuing many of the industry initiatives geared towards front line and newer employees in our industry – including Safety Monday and various certification programs that address specific safety deficiencies, including for landfill operators and drivers,

  • Continuing our progress on Slow Down to Get Around legislation, now the law in 12 states,

  • Seeking ways to address the dramatic impact that distracted driving among the public is having on accidents involving waste and collection vehicles,

  • Creating more safety training and development programs that can be implemented at the local level through our 30 chapters nationwide, and,

  • Developing new and innovative ways to address specific causes of incidents, such as from backing, heat-related illness and other factors through creation of a Stand Down program, which multiple times a year is a concentrated nationwide weeklong effort that in its first year is now reaching more than 70 percent of the private waste industry, and has been supported and implemented by other waste organizations including ISRI, SWANA and leading regional waste and recycling organizations.

In our quest to undertake a new approach to address this longstanding crisis we face, we also sought to learn from other industries that made dramatic improvements in safety performance. At the Safety Summit, safety leaders from the mining industry presented their experience and lessons learned on how that industry undertook a comprehensive approach to significantly reduce fatalities and accidents in mines.

Key lessons learned from the mining industry were that this type of industry-wide change takes time, that agreed upon measures to chart success needed to be developed, and, most importantly, that the companies operating in the industry adopt a “culture of safety.” By adopting and advocating for a culture of safety, what the mining industry learned was that it was not enough to manage to OSHA statistics and reports, but just as importantly, putting safety first in operational decisions, empowering supervisors and employees to address unsafe practices, and to be relentless in identifying and addressing causes of incidents on a continuous basis were key to sustainable, long term progress.

The lessons from the mining industry, and other leading companies with outstanding safety track records is why one of the many dimensions of our strategic safety initiatives is to ensure that companies in our industry are engaged in transforming or expanding their respective safety cultures. It is an important element of the industry’s plan, and should not be dismissed out of hand if we are to break the cycle and make true gains.

There are many important elements to building a strong safety culture and many companies in this industry understand this and have developed strong and effective model safety cultures. They are serving as models for other companies to follow. As a matter of fact, many of these companies are sharing their information, experience and insights to assist others in developing their culture. That is one of the things which is great about our industry. We engage in healthy competition in the marketplace, but when it comes to safety, competitive differences take a back seat to saving lives and preventing accidents industry-wide. In other words, at an industry wide level, we are championing a culture of safety, and are working to ensure that those companies who set an example of this culture can share their experiences and culture with other companies.

Another company in another industry also gives us a good example of what is being called the Safety Culture Leadership Movement. Alcoa’s CEO Paul O’Neill was recently featured in a 13 minute video from a Change Management and Strategic Planning course taught by Professor William O’Rourke, J.D., a former vice president at Alcoa and currently the executive director of the Beard Institute, which challenges company his leaders to affect a world-class safety culture, and it is worth watching to understand the importance of a culture of safety.

Furthermore, while there are important things companies can do now to kick-start the development of strong culture, in creating a sense of urgency it can be too easy to ignore the importance of strong planning and implementation to significantly impact safety performance. In our quest for achieving greater safety performance, the reality is that change management and process improvement, guided by a strategic plan with measurable goals and rigorous project management is how the cycle of safety underperformance will be broken.

When industry leaders issue an urgent call to action on such a matter of life and death, we applaud them and welcome their perspectives on this important work, however, if we are to succeed in making our industry safer, smarter and stronger, we must also be guided by the advice of one of our Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin, who reminded us all “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Sharon H. Kneiss is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Waste & Recycling Association.

About the Author(s)

Sharon Kneiss

President & CEO, National Waste & Recycling Association.

Sharon Kneiss is president and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association.

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