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BILLY MARTIN IS ELIMINATING safety directors from Waste Management Inc. (WM) divisions nationwide. Three years ago, the Houston-based trash behemoth fielded more than 300 safety directors. Today, the count is 150.

Don't misunderstand: The company still is concerned about keeping its employees and facilities safe. However, Martin, the company's corporate safety director, theorizes that too many safety managers made it easy for line managers to delegate responsibilities. “Our idea is to train managers at all levels to take on the responsibilities for safety,” he says. “Now our managers own safety.”

Under WM's new approach, safety professionals develop procedural guidelines, and managers implement and enforce the guidelines at landfills and other company operations. Martin says he has been astounded by the results.

During the past three years, as the company's army of safety professionals has declined in number, WM has seen a 60 percent reduction in on-the-job injuries — in all company operations. “Having been in the safety business for years, I was sure this wouldn't work, but I'm a disciple now,” he says.

The dramatic cultural change in safety management at WM landfills reflects a broad change working its way through the industry. Safety managers with Republic Services Inc. of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and IESI of Ft. Worth, Texas, also describe their landfill safety programs in cultural terms.

The widespread shift to cultural safety practices may explain the 30 percent decline in fatal injuries recorded at the nation's landfills from 1999 to 2002. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., 33 workers died in landfill accidents in 1999. By 2002, the most recent statistics available, fatalities had fallen to 24. During the period, there was one blip. There were 26 fatalities in 2000 compared to 28 in 2001.

Thinking about Safety

Eighteen months ago, Republic Services retained DuPont Safety Resources, a safety consulting division of Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont, to help improve safety at Republic landfills. DuPont's opening recommendation advised managers to view safety improvement as a cultural change. “They don't tell us how to be safe,” says Mike Calleja, general manager at Republic's Valley View Landfill near Louisville, Ky. “Instead, they teach us how to think about safety.”

Among the DuPont recommendations adopted by Republic are RESOP observations, short for Republic standard operating procedure observations. Calleja conducts a RESOP every week by spending one hour observing each facet of his landfill's operation. In that hour, he takes up posts at the working face, shop, scalehouse, road and office looking for safe and unsafe behaviors.

Each of Calleja's operational managers conducts two hours of RESOP observation weekly. The facility safety manager observes for one hour weekly. Area and regional managers, including presidents, also observe RESOPs.

The observations help Republic understand problem areas so managers can take action. During a recent observation for example, Calleja noticed an equipment operator repairing his tractor in a pinch point. He was working underneath the hopper, which was raised high in the air and suspended only by the hydraulic rams. The lock-out-tag-out safety bar that locks the hopper in place was missing.

RESOP procedures go beyond observing when action is called for. So, Calleja approached the operator and asked where the safety bar was.

“In the shop,” replied the operator.

“Go get it and use it,” Calleja said. Then he added a stinger, courtesy of DuPont's cultural teachings: “Do you realize that if that hydraulic line had broken, I would have had to call your wife and kids tonight and tell them you weren't coming home. I would have had to say that no, you weren't working late, and no you weren't hurt. But you were dead and never coming home again.”

The idea is to make safety personal. During monthly safety meetings, Valley View Landfill managers and employees discuss RESOP observations. For these meetings, Calleja has developed a host of tactics designed to drive home his messages. For example, he requests family photographs from vacations and posts them on bulletin boards. When talking about safety, he points to the photos and asks, “Which of you don't want to enjoy this part of life anymore?”

In one case, Calleja made up an industry statistic after counting the people in the room at a safety meeting. “There are 25 people in this room,” he said. “In the industrial world, one out of 25 people dies in an accident every year. Unless you pay strict attention to safety, one of you won't be in this meeting next year.”

Statistically inaccurate, Calleja admits, but notes it is an effective way to make the point. “Safety is a personal thing because life is personal,” he says. “We can be as safe as we want to be if we think about it the right way.”

Primary Dangers

At a landfill, the working face is the most dangerous. Throughout the day, large collection trucks and tractor trailers deliver trash there. Giant loaders then cover the new trash with dirt, while massive compactors roll over the dirt to stabilize the new surface. The process and heavy equipment makes the working face particularly dangerous for people on foot, who are difficult to see.

“Invisibility is the primary hazard in a landfill,” Calleja says. “We do everything we can to make sure our employees and our customers on the working face are visible. We require high visibility reflective safety vests, as well as hard hats, safety glasses and steel-toed work boots.”

Landfill managers also typically mount cameras on the rear of large machines to deal with blind spots. The cameras feed video to monitors in the cabs. “We've found that black and white cameras don't do a good job of distinguishing people,” Calleja says. “People blend in with the black and white trash. Color cameras are better. Brightly colored high visibility vests stand out in a color scene.”

The second most dangerous landfill hazard, Calleja says, is being struck by moving objects. On the working face, individuals must dodge falling tailgates, capsizing roll-off trucks, trash trucks backing up to the face to dump their loads, and moving compactors and dozers. Bizarre moving objects are commonplace, too. A length of plastic pipe can easily hook onto a plastic trash bag, for example. Should a compactor or truck catch the other end of the pipe, bend it for a time and then let go, the garbage bag can be flung a hundred feet across the face at a terrific speed.

Consequently, Republic and other landfill owners display signs to inform people of safety issues and to communicate the rules designed to overcome the danger of being struck by objects. Common rules include:

  • Park trash trucks at least 10 to 15 feet apart while dumping trash at the face.

  • Stay at least 100 feet away from roll-off trucks or semis to avoid injury should they tip over.

  • Only one person outside of a vehicle at a time. When leaving a vehicle notify nearby heavy equipment operators of your intentions. Then stay close to your vehicle and maintain eye contact with equipment operators. Do not walk behind the heavy equipment.

  • No scavenging. Scavengers pay attention to the trash and not to the movements of the heavy equipment.

In a tightly run landfill, anyone breaking the rules is dealt with quickly. Says Calleja: “My team has the authority to tell any customer at any time, ‘If I run over you, you will not require first aid. Someone will scoop you up with a spoon and put you into a baggie.’”

Tough with Customers

Making customers and outside contractors abide by safety rules can be challenging. So this year, Terry Bitner, south regional health and safety manager with IESI, initiated a program called “Taking Control” to improve the safety behavior of visitors to IESI landfills.

Bitner sends a six-page memo about safety procedures to all IESI customers and contractors. The memo lays out the rules, which are similar to the rules recommended for any landfill, and then asks the customer or contractor to return a signed copy.

Drivers who violate any of the rules covered in the memo receive a citation. “We notify the company with a safety violation form,” Bitner says. “Along with the violation form, we send another copy of our rules.”

In an accompanying letter, IESI asks the customer to talk to the individual about the violation and warns that if it happens again, the individual will be banned from the landfill.

“The IESI plan has unique aspects,” says Lloyd Andrew, president of EnvirOSH Services Inc., a Houston-based consultant specializing in landfill safety. “Many of the large companies publish their rules and send them to their customers. If a driver doesn't follow the rules, the landfill manager will call the company. But I haven't seen anyone document the problem, recommend follow up action to the customer and then ban drivers. That's a good plan. And it is something that OSHA likes to see: a plan for enforcing the rules.”

IESI's new approach also has eliminated spotters, who direct traffic on the landfill's working face. Instead, arriving drivers are informed at the gate that the operators on the dozers and the compactors will direct traffic, Bitner says.

Also, cameras are being placed on heavy equipment at IESI landfills, and all heavy equipment operators carry radios. “We require our operators to notify someone before they get out of the equipment — tell the nearest compactor operator that you are going to be on the ground for a few minutes and to stay away,” Bitner says.

Safety consultants say that the biggest hindrance to changing the behavior of people working in industrial settings has to do with the nature of unsafe behavior: Unsafe behavior is usually easier and more convenient than safe behavior.

“We tell our employees that no hazard is permissible, no matter how temporary,” Bitner says. “If you are complacent about safety in any way, something bad will happen. It's not a matter of if, but when.”

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysville, Md.