Safety: Your Lifeblood

THE IMAGE OF SAFETY in the waste industry is evolving. No longer a few cautionary posters in the workplace and a manual gathering dust on a shelf, safety now is a necessary business expense. “It's really more like an investment than a cost,” notes Jim Schultz, Waste Management Inc.'s vice president for health and safety. “Safety isn't only the right thing to do, it's good business,” he says.

With those sentiments in mind, modern refuse companies have been stepping up their efforts to reduce on-the-job hazards and to ingrain safety practices into the essence of their operations. The results have been measurable.

For example, through its “Mission to Zero” — meaning zero accidents — safety program, Houston-based Waste Management has reduced injuries by 20 percent each year since 2001, Schultz says. In the past four years, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Allied Waste Industries has reduced accidents by 60 percent, says Garry Mosier, safety director.

Equipment changes in the past decade — automated collection vehicles, low-entry cabs, higher-visibility vests and sturdier protective clothing — plus stricter standards and initiatives from the Washington, D.C.-based Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) no doubt account for many of the industry's overall safety improvements, too. According to a U.S. Department of Labor study, the industry's fatality rate dropped 30 percent in 2002 compared to the previous year. From 1998 to 2002, OSHA also found that the injury and illness rate among waste businesses dipped from 11 incidents per 100 full-time employees to 7.3 incidents, a decrease of 35 percent.

However, the commitment of sanitation employees is what drives a successful safety program, industry experts say. Even the most cunningly designed safety strategy is doomed to failure without the support of all parts of the organization.

“It's about winning hearts and minds,” says Schultz, a former fighter pilot. “You have to have the engagement and buy-in of field management, operators and senior leadership, but you also have to have a personal level of involvement for each individual. It's an art form, not a science.”

Up Close and Personal

So how do you develop a safety program that jibes with employees?

First, “you have to change the behavior of ‘it won't happen to me,’” says Susan Eppes, president of waste industry consulting firm EST Solutions, Houston. “Drivers with 20 years of experience may have always done the same potentially unsafe things over and over and never learned anything different. The best programs take real-life accidents and show how they can have a personal effect on the employees.”

You want to get away from relying on compliance-based programs, Mosier suggests, noting that Allied wants all of its employees “to take personal ownership for their safety.” Direct employee input is crucial to crafting a safety message, he says.

“You can't take people with bright minds and beat them into submission by pushing policies and programs,” agrees Larry Stone, safety director for Rumpke Consolidated Cos., Cincinnati. “It's important to get [workers'] input on drafts and listen to them.”

When developing its safety program, Rumpke conducted a survey of 50 of its drivers, asking them five questions about the hazards they see every day. “One of the questions was, ‘How many times do you experience a near-miss?’” Stone says. “We were surprised to hear that almost every one of [the drivers] said, ‘At least once a day.’”

Feedback such as this is valuable to route managers. “Employees can monitor when and where there's a bad customer, someone who puts needles in the waste stream or overloads containers,” Eppes says.

Waste Management has accumulated drivers', truck experts', mechanics' and managers' knowledge over the years and created an “Operating Rule Book,” a list of best practices used by all drivers of the company's 30,000-truck fleet. “We brought in the best drivers and route managers and asked them how they do everything,” Schultz says. “They're the best consultants.”

To facilitate the process of acquiring employee input, Republic Services Inc., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., also organized safety committees “in which information flows both up and down,” says Mike Lambert, corporate safety director. When all employees are on board with a safety program and know that it will make their jobs and lives easier, they almost begin to supervise themselves. “You know you've changed the culture when the line employees can approach each other and point out safety issues,” he says.

Just Rewards

If reducing the risk to life and limb is not enough of a motivator, a company can offer incentives. Allied, for instance, lets each of its divisions come up with a recognition program to encourage safe driving. “We're in the process of rolling out a gift certificate program,” Mosier says. “Called ‘Recognizing Excellence,’ the program will award gifts such as jackets, belt buckles and a commemorative ring to [drivers] who achieve the top level.”

Driver incentive programs are building staff morale at Republic, Lambert adds. Safety records are tied to the performance of the company's line managers and drivers. “We've seen a significant drop [in turnover] since the incentive program started,” he says. “It gives [everyone] a much better feeling about the company.”

Keith George, managing director of Camp Hill, Pa.-based American Wholesale Insurance Group, which manages the Environmental Industry Associations' insurance program, says stability and low staff turnover help to determine whether automobile coverage or workers' compensation premiums should be lowered.

“A lot of firms have trouble attracting and retaining good drivers,” George says. “Some incentive-based arrangement, such as a $100 gift certificate, gives [workers] a little stake in the game. The potential increase of premiums due to increased claims would far outweigh the costs of an incentive program,” he says.

Hit the Books

To improve safety, it's also important for management to provide adequate training. Too often, Lambert says, the best safety practices are not adequately ingrained in the minds of new employees. “We often bring together a group of mechanics and drivers and ask them, ‘What can we do to improve safety?’” he says. “Without exception, they always say, ‘Train your new guys better.’”

To address that, Republic has enhanced its safety training manual, expanding the standard 22 topics in OSHA's lockout/tagout procedures to 142, tailored to the company's operations. A comprehensive, more detailed monthly safety program was set up for drivers, helpers and equipment operators.

“When new drivers are hired, they are told to use their mirrors, but they're never told how to use those mirrors,” Lambert says. “If you don't see your helper, what do you do?”

Allied's supervisor and employee training program consists of between 10 to 15 different classes conducted in various areas of the country each year, Mosier says. Instructors include former police officers as well as two chiropractors who show collection crews how to lift properly.

One innovation that helps to tie together training efforts in Allied's network of 315 collection companies is the adoption of PlaceWare, a live, Internet-based conferencing tool. It allows monthly safety seminars to be conducted from the corporate office over the phone in various Allied regions simultaneously, Mosier says.

Waste Management employees participate in annual safety training under the “Mission to Zero” program, which consists of a rigorous three-tier certification process. It is like “a rite of passage,” Schultz says.

The company's Green Certification for managers and supervisors provides training for safety fundamentals. The next phase, Gold Certification, is given to drivers and assistants who work directly with Waste Management's customers. The final Platinum Certification phase, awarded to upper management, includes training on compliance with regulations and access to the WasteMaster/ALIVE system that monitors each driver's activities.

Outreach and Branding

Because the waste industry has frequent daily contact with the public, companies must extend their safety programs to the community in the form of public education and awareness campaigns.

For Rumpke, the necessity of these programs was made brutally clear last year. In a four-day span, Rumpke refuse drivers suffered two tragic accidents. One driver incurred severe head injuries when a car struck him on New Year's Eve 2003, and another driver was killed on Jan. 3, 2004, when he was hit by a sports-utility vehicle.

From the depths of those two tragedies, Stone launched “Slow Down to Get Around,” a universal education program available at no charge to haulers and municipalities. The campaign is designed to raise public awareness about the need to drive with caution around refuse vehicles and crews. Rumpke's truck supplier, McNeilus, owned by Oshkosh Corp., helped to fund and promote the campaign. “This may open [truck manufacturers'] eyes to a new way of working with their customers,” Stone says.

The campaign includes large truck decals with the “Slow Down to Get Around” logo and two radio and television commercials, which Rumpke produced for about $10,000. The ads, however, are generic, allowing space for participants — even other haulers — to add their own names and logos. After its introduction at last year's WasteExpo 2004 tradeshow, 175 cities and municipalities around the country signed up to participate, Stone says. Rumpke is in the process of adding another 57 towns in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, to the program.

The tactic of “branding” safety programs is used extensively at Waste Management to make a visual and mental impact on employees and the public, Schultz says. “Mission to Zero,” he says, acts as the company's umbrella safety program. Other initiatives under the “M2Z” name include “Transition to Recovery,” to help injured persons get the best medical care available, and “Life Changer,” which encourages drivers to “change someone's life for the better” through safe behavior, such as by being courteous at a traffic signal or watching out for children on bicycles.

Sharing the Wealth

Innovative programs such as “Mission to Zero” and “Slow Down to Get Around” are encouraging signs that safety has become a core value that should be shared freely with employees, customers, municipalities and even competitors in the waste industry, Eppes says.

“So many companies are developing safety programs for school kids or customizing programs to make a more personal impact on their employees,” she says. “We're starting to realize that not everything our employees do is within our control. A bad safety record reflects poorly on our standing in the community. From a public relations standpoint, injuries, accidents, dirty trucks and lateness all can affect contract renewals.”

Rumpke already is embarking on a new landfill safety program. A group of five industrial hygenics students from the University of Cincinnati has been reviewing Rumpke's landfill safety regulations and equipment for the past year. Their findings, due this month, will be shared with any interested parties, Stone says.

“A lot of times, your awareness about safety is a baptism by fire. We're not trying to create something we keep in a glass jar. We never want to have a situation where somebody died because the company didn't sit down with the NSWMA to work out a safety plan,” he says.

Perhaps most encouragingly, Eppes says efforts such as these shatter the old expectations that injuries and accidents are unavoidable in waste management. “We used to hear, ‘Well, that's just part of the job,’” she says. “Well, not anymore.”

Randy Woods is a Waste Age contributing editor based in Seattle.


Much of the emphasis on safety has come from the realization that effective safety programs not only save lives, but they save money as well.

Republic Services' cost per man-hour has shrunk by 15 percent from January to October 2004, due in part to relatively inexpensive improvements, says Mike Lambert, corporate safety director. Improvements have included the rollout of a new safety training manual and the expansion of Republic's driver training program. “It doesn't have to cost a whole lot for a comprehensive training program,” he says. “Just changing the way you think can save lot of money.”

Of course, not all safety improvements come cheap. Allied Waste Industries recently completed a three-year retrofit program to install cameras and light-emitting diode (LED) and strobe warning lights on the front and back of each collection truck. Safety Director Gary Mosier estimates the company also spends about $2 million every year on safety training classes, programs and films.

Nevertheless, when factoring in the avoided costs of injuries, the costs become more palatable, says Rumpke's Larry Stone. It might take $20,000 to install a fall-protection device on a truck, which might take three to five years to pay off, he says. However, a single, preventable fall could cost a hauler a $100,000 to $150,000 injury award. “When you look at it that way, you can quantify it better,” Stone says. “You soon say to yourself, ‘How can you afford not to?’”

Safety performance also can have an effect on insurance rates. Costs for property and bodily injury claims continue to rise while deductibles for some commercial general liability policies in the industry have risen from $50,000 to $150,000 in the past few years, says Susan Eppes of EST Solutions.

However, Keith George of American Wholesale Insurance Group says “some pricing concessions now are being given. Companies are being rewarded for good safety performance,” he says.