Safety Starts at the Top

PREVENTING FATALITIES, INJURIES AND accidents in the solid waste industry is an ongoing struggle. Each day, tens of thousands of collection trucks run their routes, sometimes making more than 800 residential pickups. These trucks dump their loads at transfer stations, material recovery facilities, incinerators and landfills. Then waste is processed, transferred, or compacted via manual labor, sorting equipment and heavy equipment. This mix of trash, people, trucks and heavy equipment, often in close quarters, can result in safety hazards that can lead to accidents.

Despite these challenging conditions, the solid waste industry places a high emphasis on employee and community safety. Waste companies recognize the relationship between safe operations and maintaining a productive and healthy workforce; providing a responsible presence to customers and their communities; and controlling the cost of waste services.

A waste management company's safety department is responsible for improving worker safety and, not coincidentally, reducing property damage, personal injury claims and workers compensation costs. However, it can be difficult for a safety director to single-handedly change a company's safety culture and persuade veteran workers to change their job performance.

Drivers, helpers and others are often more responsive to their direct reports or supervisors than to the corporate safety director whom they may rarely or never see. Also, some employees' “it's not going to happen to me” attitude can be tough to overcome.

In response, some companies are making safety a basic management function. Instead of relying solely on a safety department, companies are making managers responsible for implementing the company's safety program. Accidents and lost workdays have become metrics by which managers are evaluated and compensated. When managers have a personal financial stake in reducing accidents and claims, human nature suggests that they will be more attentive. At one national solid waste company, several corporate safety department managers have become local managers in the field.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) has expanded its safety program offerings in recent years, including the release of the OSHA-funded “Be Safe, Be Proud” safety video, promotion of the “Slow Down to Get Around” campaign, and the Coaching the Refuse Driver II program. NSWMA also offers safety education sessions at WasteExpo, has a manual of recommended safety practices and promotes driver safety through Driver of the Year Safety Awards. Information about these NSWMA safety programs can be found at

Two NSWMA members in Illinois asked the association to provide company-specific manager safety training in 2004. NSWMA responded with cost-effective programs that fit each company's needs. The companies appreciated not having to send managers out of town for safety training, and they valued the expertise of the instructors and the focus on real-world, practical safety tips for solid waste managers.

This year, NSWMA will offer a manager-focused three- to four-hour safety program at its members' workplaces. Although the program will be customized for each member, the basic components of the program likely will include: the leading causes of fatalities and injuries in the solid waste industry; the importance of ANSI safety standards; OSHA compliance; and how to improve the company's safety culture and make a good safety program even better. This will include tips on what other companies are doing.

While many managers are aware of employee safety, they are frequently unaware of how their company's fatality rate or OSHA compliance record compares to industry averages. By bringing together managers for half a day to discuss safety, a company can demonstrate its commitment to the safety of its employees. This new NSWMA safety program could help companies achieve their safety objectives. Of course, executing changes that encourage safe operations and make safety part of its employees' “DNA” is the true test of a company's commitment.

David Biderman is the general counsel for NSWMA. To contact him or to learn about the new Safety Training for Managers Program, call (202) 364-3743 or e-mail