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January 1, 2006

10 Min Read
Playing it Safe

Kim O'Connell

LAST JULY, JOHN-PAUL RODRIGUES, a rookie sanitation worker in Ossining, N.Y., died after falling off the back of a trash truck and sustaining a head injury. His death sparked grief and outrage in the close-knit community, which immediately called for greater scrutiny of waste operations. Not surprisingly, newspaper stories repeated the industry-dreaded charge that garbage is a dangerous business.

The reality is more complex. Serious and fatal accidents continue to occur in the solid waste industry, but the statistics appear to be improving. In 2004, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 56 solid waste fatalities, including 34 deaths in solid waste collection, 15 at landfills and four at materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Those numbers reflected an overall drop from 2003, when BLS reported 59 solid waste fatalities, including 45 deaths in solid waste collection, seven at landfills and three at MRFs.

The trend in workplace injuries was similar. The nonfatal waste collection injury rate dropped from 9.9 per 100 full-time workers in 2003 to 9.8 in 2004, while the injury rate in waste treatment and disposal dropped from 8.2 to 6.9. Between 1998 and 2002 (when workplace injury and fatality rates were recorded slightly differently), the injury and illness rate for solid waste companies declined from 11 to 7.3 per 100 workers, a more than 35 percent decline.

“The BLS fatality and injury rate numbers indicate that the industry is making steady progress in reducing workplace fatalities and injuries,” says David Biderman, general counsel for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). “What we see is companies of all sizes placing an increased focus on safety, and the outcome is these better numbers.”

However, the statistical trends are not all positive. In 2005, the Washington-based Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued more safety citations to solid waste employers in 2005 than in 2004. (See “OSHA Violations Increase,” p. 18)

Overall, the industry still has much work to do. In an analysis of its 2004 fatality data, BLS singled out refuse and recycling collection as one of the most dangerous professions, alongside logging, roofing and truck driving. Less tangibly, the garbage industry often takes a hit in the media when accidents occur between a garbage truck and another motorist, even if the other driver was at fault. Finally, waste companies are finding that safety is no longer simply an issue of cleaning up facilities and issuing directives: Managers are now investigating the deeper questions of what motivates employees to act in safe or unsafe ways.

Stepping Up to the Plate

Without question, the process of collecting, treating and disposing of solid waste poses many risks to careless or unfortunate workers. A typical day on the route offers numerous opportunities for disaster, as employees hop on and off trucks, lift bags and bins, avoid harmful substances in the trash and dodge traffic. Historically, most solid waste fatalities have been vehicle-related, usually occurring when workers fall off or are hit by a collection truck. Injuries also commonly result from heavy lifting, with containers often weighing 50 to 100 pounds. Working inside a waste facility poses other dangers, such as strain and fatigue from long hours on a sorting line or injuries from handling heavy equipment such as compactors or balers. At landfills, collection vehicles, bulldozers and people must all negotiate an uneven working face.

Not surprisingly, safety is a growing concern for many people in the industry. NSWMA's white paper, “Safety and the Waste Industry: An Improving Picture,” attributes this trend partly to a burgeoning industry desire to be viewed as socially responsible leaders. Also, in recent years, as competition has become more robust, many companies are also looking for ways to cut costs, especially those related to accidents, insurance and liability.

“There are better initiatives coming out of the industry,” says Will Flower, vice president of communications for Republic Services, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “There's been a focus on NSWMA's part to create safety education programs that are specific to our industry, instead of borrowing from the transportation industry. Secondly, companies have seen a tremendous increase in the cost associated with accidents and injuries, and they want to reduce their losses. The third thing has to do with the equipment itself. We are using better equipment today, including tires, brakes and trucks, and more employees are wearing personal protective equipment.”

NSWMA's industry safety initiatives include a series of safety videos, regional safety training seminars and educational programs at WasteExpo. The association also works with companies on specific safety programs, and in 2005 it began a weekly newsletter called “Safety Monday,” with quick news and tips for staying safe. As part of NSWMA's Safety Committee, representatives from several waste companies and equipment manufacturers regularly work together on new worker-protection programs.

Recently, NSWMA, Republic and Houston-based Waste Management (WM) joined to produce a new video on transfer station safety, which will premiere at this year's WasteExpo. “At the last WasteExpo, more than 300 people came to a safety program on landfills,” Biderman says. “That's an example of the unprecedented interest in industry safety. Both the public and private sectors have increased their focus in this area.”

Increasingly, waste companies are finding that they need to pull together to make the industry safer. Biderman points to an accident last summer in Connecticut, in which a dump truck in another industry crashed into a bus, causing a pile-up involving 18 other vehicles. Four people were killed, including the truck driver. In response, the state ordered inspections of all trucking companies (including trash haulers) with poor safety records, and the media singled out at least one waste company for scrutiny. “This demonstrates the potential impact of an incident, whether it involves your company or not,” Biderman says. “A single accident by one of your competitors could mean a world of hurt for you.”

A Team Approach

The safety issues that waste managers are dealing with are more complex than ever. Safety consultant Susan Eppes, president of Houston-based EST Solutions, says that the industry has matured to a point where managers are worrying less about safeguarding facilities and equipment — which are more sophisticated than ever — and more about which safety policies motivate or discourage employees and why. That requires even the most hard-nosed waste manager to become something of a psychologist.

“With any program, you start out by establishing the rules,” Eppes explains. “Over the last 20 years, the waste industry has established the rules and spent a lot of money and time training employees. So when an accident occurs, it's not that someone didn't know the rules. So we're talking about motivation. We're at a point where we're looking at unsafe acts, not unsafe conditions.”

As a result, waste companies large and small are holistically viewing safety as a culture and way of life, not just something workers have to do or else risk reprimands. “What the Waste Managements, the Allieds and the Republics have done is they make the managers responsible for safety,” Eppes says. “We need to crack the motivation issue and figure out what messages work for employees, but it takes a lot of supervisory time. It takes a true management commitment. It's not a ‘go fix the truck’ type of thing. This is a touchy-feely type of thing.”

Waste companies have upgraded their safety programs in a variety of ways. A few years ago, WM embarked on a “Mission to Zero” program with a goal of completely eradicating the firm's number of accidents, which it says has reduced the number of fatalities and lost work days. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Allied Waste Industries has a risk-based program focused on changing employee behavior, which has resulted in a 60-percent reduction in its accident rate. Finally, in one of the most widely adopted programs in the industry, Cincinnati-based Rumpke Consolidated Cos. and Dodge Center, Minn.-based McNeilus Truck and Manufacturing have developed a national campaign urging drivers to “Slow Down to Get Around” refuse workers.

“Fewer people are entering this industry,” Eppes says, “so when you get someone, you really have to keep them and work with them. When it comes to safety training, this means both ‘hard’ skills and ‘soft’ skills. The major companies have given this a lot of attention. And as they go, so goes the industry.”

Denny Poole, the president of SP Industries in Hopkins, Mich., a manufacturer of compactors and other equipment, has seen first-hand how manufacturers have also placed greater emphasis on safety, including the development of a certification program in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards for waste equipment. The Waste Equipment Technology Association, Washington, serves as the secretariat for the ANSI Z245 committee on waste equipment, and its members are regularly involved in developing new standards. Currently, ANSI Z245 standards exist for collection, transportation, compaction, waste containers, waste and recyclable facilities, and baling equipment.

“We've spent a lot of years in putting material together,” Poole says. “In the last five years, the manufacturers have started to take notice and pay attention to the safety standards, because some of them have been stung with product liability. As people get more educated, we will continue to get safer.”

Having a Game Plan

Safety education is reaching all corners of the waste industry. Several companies have focused not just on employee training, but on supervisor training, with an emphasis on coaching skills. In addition, managers are increasingly taking a hands-on approach to their employees' safety, such as standing at the gate when trucks leave and return each day or going on ride-alongs. “I think we'll continue to see improvement in the overall numbers of injuries and fatalities,” Biderman says. “At the same time, we still have too many high-profile accidents.”

Four years ago, Republic made safety a dominant focus, expanding its safety program from basic OSHA compliance to about 140 separate training programs. The company also shifted from a heavy reliance on video and classroom training to more field work and personal interaction. “We had a safety program before, and it was adequate for our business,” Will Flower says. “What was lacking was a personal commitment to safety in which we looked at safety from the perspective of how it affected the employee and his or her family. When we did that, it resulted in a real change in our corporate culture. We involved everyone from managers to supervisors to individual drivers, and as a result we have seen a substantial reduction in the number of incidents Republic has been involved in.”

Too often, safety investigations end with a determination of operator error, which might be recorded in a logbook or result in an employee reprimand, before everybody returns to business as usual. “But you have to ask why that operator error occurred, and what the root cause was,” says Michael Lambert, Republic's corporate safety director. “Safety is mostly psychological. You can't just go out and look at facility and truck inspections — the mud-flaps, windshields and so on — you have to look at the unsafe behaviors of employees and others. You have to take safety down to a personal basis, so your employees are asking themselves, ‘Why should safety be important to me?’ If you don't do that, you've failed.”

Contributing Editor Kim O'Connell is based in Arlington, Va.


The most common safety problems in the waste industry involve repetitive motions and overexertion. Here are some things waste managers should watch out for:

  • Repetitiveness: This could involve constant bending and lifting of trash containers, or sorting materials in a recycling facility. Refuse truck drivers and workers sometimes have to lift as much as 75 pounds, hundreds of times a day. Managers should encourage workers to take breaks or to switch roles occasionally.

  • Overexertion: Sanitation workers are always at risk of lifting loads that are too heavy. Sometimes, moving arms and hands too quickly in the performance of a task also can cause ergonomic stress.

  • Position/posture: Waste industry workers can suffer safety risks from being in one position too long or from stretching or twisting their posture in unnatural ways. Again, regular breaks can allow the body to recover.

  • Inadequate equipment and training: Waste facility and fleet managers should regularly ensure that equipment is used properly and that it is adequate for the task at hand. — KO

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