Trash Collection Ergonomics

TREATING BACK INJURIES, AN occupational hazard in the waste industry, can create aches and pains in a waste firm's bottom line. According to the National Safety Council, Itasca, Ill., the cost of treating back injury complaints ranges from $30 billion to $50 billion annually. Additionally, approximately 93 million work days are lost each year in the United States due to back pain. However, educating workers about proper ergonomics can significantly reduce back injuries and, as a result, reduce lost productivity and associated worker replacement costs.

Trash collection is a strenuous job, and when a safety professional analyzes the physical activity involved in trash collection, it sounds even more strenuous. Consider this ergonomics assessment of trash and recyclables collection: Collection requires frequent torso flexions to lift recyclables up to the collection truck. Employees routinely bend their torsos forward 80 to 90 degrees when lifting items from the curb. Lifting boxes and bins with one hand by grasping the lip of the container exerts significant finger force with the fingers in a straight, locked alignment. So how does a waste firm manage the potential back injury risks to keep workers safe and to keep workers' comp costs under control?

Controlling ergonomics hazards in trash collection can present some difficulties. The main problem involves how customers put out their trash for pickup. Repeatedly giving customers information, such as flyers, about employee safety and health may encourage some customers to correctly use and place containers for pickup. Customers will likely improve such behavior, however, only if the necessary equipment is easily attainable and convenient to use. Improving collection site safety can bolster overall employee health because injuries are cumulative by nature.

Because cost can be a roadblock to customers acquiring proper equipment, collection companies can offer free or reduced-price containers that are ergonomically sound and designed to reduce employees' physical exertion. For trash collectors' safety, containers should be stackable to eliminate severe bending. Containers with a cutout hand hole or protruding lip also allow the collector to grasp the container more easily and encourages neutral wrist posture to lessen back exertion. A standard stack of recycling containers mounted on a light-duty hand truck, for example, allows most lifts to be performed while standing and gives customers an easy way to transport their trash to the curb.

Finally, it is important for employees to receive continuing education in ergonomics and body biomechanics basics. Workers should understand the importance of maintaining the back in an ergonomically neutral position and be able to recognize the early onset of ergonomic injuries so back injuries can be minimized.

Additional training should emphasize the importance of rest periods during the day. Self-paced route employees often are tempted to work through breaks and lunch to shorten their workday. This should be strongly discouraged by management's policies.

By preventing back injuries through education, waste firms can keep workers on the job and increase productivity.