Sorting Out Safety

Implementing a comprehensive safety program at your MRF is the key to long-term success.

November 1, 2007

8 Min Read
Sorting Out Safety

Susan Eppes

Within the last 10 years, material recovery facility (MRF) operators and their equipment manufacturers have increasingly made safety a top priority. Put simply, facilities that want to succeed have a vested interest in implementing an effective safety program. While improved technology has changed the role of employees from sorters to enforcers of quality control, workers still are exposed to hazards. Companies today prefer to do business with partners that practice safety, and, to reduce their liability, equipment manufacturers and facility designers are more receptive to working with MRF owners that address hazards at their sites.

Changing Worker Roles

In the past, workers were responsible for sorting by hand, either on the floor or on elevated sorting lines, every type of product that came into a recycling facility. Each recyclable item had to be physically removed from the sorting line and placed in bins according to commodity type. This exposed employees to a variety of hazards including cuts from glass; slips, trips and falls; needle sticks from discarded sharps; strains and sprains; and foreign bodies to the eye.

Modern facilities feature a higher level of technology, which means the role of employees has changed. Optical sorters, bag breakers, trommel screens and other equipment actually process recyclables and separate them by product type, weight, color and size. Workers still are responsible for sorting recyclables, but they get involved much later in the process and perform more of a quality control function, overseeing the final sort before the products are baled and sent to customers. Additionally, the final product contains fewer contaminants because of the higher level of efficiency in the sorting process.

The basic process of how items move through the facility has not changed. Typically, a bucket loader pushes material into a pit, where it travels up an incline conveyor and into mechanized equipment for sorting. After the material has been processed, line sorters remove contaminants that have inadvertently passed through the machinery.

Safe access to machinery should be addressed upfront by the facility owner/operator, designers and equipment manufacturers. As equipment has become more complex, maintenance also has become more sophisticated. Workers need to be carefully trained and provided proper access to maintenance points. This often requires additional platforms and stairs.

As workers' roles have changed, so has personal protective equipment (PPE), which used to be far less comfortable and functional than it is today. Industry members surely remember the big (and uncomfortable) square visitor safety glasses. Gloves were “one size fits all,” guaranteeing a poor fit and making it difficult to grasp items on the sorting line.

New developments have made PPE more comfortable, meaning employees now are more willing to wear gloves, arm protection and hearing protection. For example, Hex Armor and Waste Management's Recycle America have developed gloves specifically for the recycling industry that have greatly reduced the incidents of cuts and abrasions from glass and metal, as well as needle sticks from improperly discarded syringes. Also available are arm guards that come to the elbow, especially useful on pre-sort lines where hazards still exist.

A New Culture

Successful companies view safety as a top priority rather than an afterthought. Some are driven by a desire to “do the right thing,” but companies also have begun to realize that to be attractive as partners or acquisitions, they need to incorporate safety into their corporate culture.

To protect their reputation, as well as their bottom line, companies — many of whom are self-insured — want to learn about an organization's safety initiatives before they solidify a relationship. “When I look at buying or partnering with a company, safety is a key concern,” says Dennis Soriano, senior vice president for Houston-based Greenstar North America, a processor of recyclables. “If a company operates in a safe fashion, you generally assume they're responsible from the top down.”

External pressure also has helped reinforce and strengthen management's commitment to safety. To avoid negative media coverage and possible litigation, waste generators demand that their product be processed responsibly, safely and confidentially way once it leaves their site. As a result, solid waste companies are buying safer equipment and performing proper maintenance. Waste firms, particularly the larger ones, are making changes and reducing the frequency of their accidents.

“Because safety has become such a liability issue, training is critical,” says Denny Pool, president of Hopkins, Mich.-based SP Industries Inc., a manufacturer of waste handling and recycling equipment. “Owners and supervisors should teach their employees to view facility safety as a whole system, not just a series of machines. That commitment has to start with upper management and flow downhill.”

From a regulatory standpoint, things haven't changed much. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compliance programs still need to be developed and implemented. Employees, however, are more focused on their own safety and want to identify problem areas before incidents occur. Near-miss programs also are standard at progressive facilities nationwide.

While many companies have embraced safety as a part of the corporate culture, some organizations still fall short. David Biderman, general counsel of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) and the leader of the organization's safety efforts, says that while the industry's safety record is improving on a year-over-year basis, a disproportionate number of fatalities and accidents involve the facilities of smaller waste companies.

Each year the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates incident rates for all North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes to determine an organization's safety performance. As awareness has increased in facilities, incident rates have gone down. For example, in 2003, NAICS code 562, which covers waste management and remediation services, recorded a total recordable incidents rate (TRIR) of 8.3 and a days away and restricted time (DART) rate of 5.7. By 2005, the TRIR for the code had declined to 7.1 and the DART rate to 4.7.

To calculate your company's rate, refer to

Elements of an Effective Program

The first step in any safety program is to perform a hazard assessment of all facilities, including people, equipment and processes. Any hazards identified should be addressed by the “hierarchy of safety”: eliminate, minimize, protect against and train about.

Following is a general facility safety checklist:

  • Make sure there is adequate PPE for all employees, visitors, suppliers and contractors. These items include hardhats, visibility vests, safety glasses, safety shoes and/or gloves.

  • Perform lockout/tagout procedures. For instance, these need to be performed when clearing jams and during maintenance.

  • Make sure all fire exits are free of obstructions and open freely.

  • Establish non-smoking policies and hot work (any flame-producing activity) permit programs to prevent fires.

  • Ensure that all safety guards are in place on belts, gears, motors and rotating shafts.

  • Keep stairs and walkways clear.

  • Observe tipping floor operations. Only one person should be out of and within six feet of the truck. No one should be closer than 15 feet to any mobile equipment.

  • Observe traffic flows, speed and patterns throughout the facility.

  • Watch fork truck and loader operations. Pay close attention to speed, seat belts, back up alarms and general operations.

  • Observe conveyors, and make sure there is no walking, standing or stepping on the belt unless it is locked and tagged out.

  • Check bale storage area for integrity, height and distance from walking areas.

Furthermore, companies need to be aware of — and in full compliance with — OSHA regulations for the following items, which result in the highest number of citations against MRFs:

  • Bloodborne pathogens

  • Confined space entry

  • Dust mask

  • Emergency action plan

  • Energy control (lockout/tagout)

  • Fall protection

  • Fire prevention plan

  • Hazard communication

  • Hearing conservation

  • Machine guarding

  • PPE

  • Powered industrial trucks

  • Respiratory protection

Moving Forward

Through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the recycling industry is setting standards for which companies will, in the absence of applicable OSHA regulations, ultimately be held accountable. Companies that still floor sort need to rethink their business and incorporate best industry practices into their corporate culture.

“Companies who haven't yet made the commitment to reducing worker exposure should provide basic safety training to employees and then enforce their safety rules,” Biderman says. “ANSI standards for collection, MRFs and containers provide a blueprint for quality safety training, and NSWMA supplements that information through its weekly safety newsletter, videos and regional training sessions.”

Owners and managers who aren't fully committed to employee safety should get serious now — before a serious accident occurs.

Susan Eppes is president of Houston-based EST Solutions Inc., a safety consulting firm.


Hazards common to the recycling industry include:

  • Fires caused by arson, contractors doing hot work in the facility, hot loads, mechanical failure, and smoking in non-designated areas

  • Accidents caused by equipment — generally trucks, forklifts or bucket loaders — running over people

  • Serious injuries from balers, compactors or processing equipment occurring during maintenance activities

  • Minor cuts and bruises, slips, trips and falls

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