The Risks of a Bad Mix

THE INCIDENT MADE HEADLINES: “Fumes Overcome Garbage Collectors.” According to a New Jersey newspaper, two garbage collectors recently were overcome with fumes emanating from the back of their truck. What was worse than the bad publicity, however, was that the fumes sent both workers to the hospital.

An investigation following the incident found that pesticides mixed with household trash released fumes when they were compressed in the back of the truck. According to the news article, police in the township reported that this incident was the third of its kind in the past few months. Certainly, three times is too many.

Chemicals, especially when mixed with everyday household trash, pose a wide range of health and physical hazards. To protect employees on the job, waste companies should educate employees and customers about hazardous materials and ways to minimize the risks.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has developed a Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) that clearly outlines how to communicate with employees about hazardous materials. The standard was designed to ensure information about potential hazards and associated protective measures are distributed to companies and their employees. HCS requires companies to provide detailed information sheets called material safety data sheets (MSDSs).

Also, the standard requires employers with hazardous chemicals in their workplaces to prepare and implement a written hazard communication program. OSHA's HCS gives workers a right to know the potential hazards of chemicals they may be exposed to. Plus, HCS requires companies to establish a training program for employees who could be exposed to hazardous materials.

When workers have that information, they can actively participate in their employers' protection programs. For instance, perhaps enhanced training could have helped the employees mentioned earlier avoid a hospital visit and avoid a potential insurance claim.

For the waste industry, the actions of others figure prominently into a company's exposures, so it is important to consider educating customers. Opening a dialogue with customers and educating them about the dangers of mixing hazardous materials with household waste can be an important risk management strategy.

Haulers may be well-versed in determining what waste is hazardous, but customers might not be as well-informed. Many customers may not realize that household hazardous waste (HHW) is any product labeled toxic, poison, corrosive, flammable, combustible or irritant. A typical home can contain many hazardous products used for cleaning, painting, beautifying, lubricating and disinfecting the house, yard and garage.

Chemical-based products from a single home may seem insignificant, but the cumulative effect of all households that handle and dispose of hazardous material improperly can become a major problem. In fact, according to the Washington-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generate 1.6 million tons of HHW per year. The average home can contain as much as 100 pounds of HHW.

Many communities have special collection days or permanent collection sites to handle HHW, but the ease of disposing of these wastes with other household garbage may be too tempting for some people. Fortunately, there are many methods for waste firms to encourage customers to safely dispose of HHW, including public service advertisements, and bill insertions. Stepping up community involvement also can prove helpful. Getting involved with local recycling organizations may allow waste firms to piggyback on their efforts to communicate about safe disposal.

Waste collection is a high risk occupation — with fatality rates 10 times higher than any other occupation, according to OSHA data. Hazardous waste does not have to augment those statistics. Instead, appropriate communication and education can ensure careless disposal habits won't add to waste companies' risk.