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Breaking Down SWANA's New MSW-Related Fatality Study

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Of the fatalities reported in that time period, 38 were solid waste employees on the job, a majority of which occurred during collection.

A new report from the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) documents that 98 fatalities directly related to municipal solid waste (MSW) collection, processing and disposal occurred in the United States in the 12-month period between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016.

Of the fatalities reported in that time period, 38 were solid waste employees on the job, a majority of which occurred during collection. However, 13 of the fatal worker incidents took place at a landfill or materials recovery facility (MRF). The average age of workers who died on the job was 41.7 years old, with 60 percent being over the age of 40, according to SWANA.

SWANA began tracking injury and fatality data starting July 1 of last year. Unlike the annual Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, SWANA is not just tracking worker fatalities, but also third party fatalities.

“We have a worker killed every week,” says SWANA Executive Director David Biderman  “And one or two third party incidents every week. Those incidents involving third parties aren’t covering by workers comp and often can lead to expensive litigation.”

The group chose to publish the data now for two reasons. In past years the BLS has unveiled preliminary data annually in September, but this year they are skipping that release and just doing a final release in December. In addition, the past few weeks have been a particularly bad stretch with at least three fatalities recorded for three straight weeks, according to SWANA.

“We thought it would be useful since we had a year’s worth of data to provide to the industry so that people in the public and private sectors can refocus on accident prevention,” Biderman says.

In terms of the recent spike, Biderman says that there are sometimes seasonal increases in accidents in both the spring and fall. “People are back from vacations and back to their normal routines and you also have the days shortening, with it dark particularly in the early morning when trucks are on their routes, and those are both likely contributing factors,” he says.

SWANA has collected the data in several ways. It has tracked news coverage of accidents (both fatal and non-fatal). It also gets information directly from its members on incidences. It then sends alerts to the chapters where incidents have occurred to provide some information about the cause and tips to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Distracted driving—both on the part of third parties and by the industry’s workers—continue to be a big factor in accidents across the country.

“Whether it’s cell phone, reaching for soda, doing something else, we need to address the distracted driving issue for our industry to make sure that we operate as safely as humanly possible in the communities we serve.… What I want to have is people focus on the frequency these incidents are occurring and to encourage supervisors and managers [to push for] defensive driving, following all applicable driving laws and all applicable ANSI standards. We want our industry getting into newspaper for contributing to local Little Leagues and rescuing people—not for people being killed.”

Also of note, Biderman says SWANA’s data supports the prevailing notion that a disproportionate number of worker fatalities occurs among smaller haulers. “We need to come up with better ways to reach those small companies to provide them with the tools they need to provide a safer work environment for their employees,” he says.

Overall, 11 of the fatalities during collection were the result of an employee being struck by a vehicle while working outside a garbage truck, with an additional four fatalities happening due to workers falling off a truck they were riding. At post-collection facilities, being struck by a vehicle was also the most common cause of death.

SWANA also identified 60 third-party fatalities during this one-year time period. These are incidents that involved solid waste trucks or equipment resulting in the death of a member of the general public. Over 70 percent of these fatalities were the result of a collision between two or more vehicles. Just over one-fourth of the incidents were a result of a collision between a solid waste collection vehicle and a pedestrian or bicyclist.

The month of April saw the most fatalities so far in 2016, with eight third-party and five worker deaths. The deadliest single incident occurred in Ohio in May of this year when a driver and three passengers died in a collision with a solid waste vehicle.

Since July 1, 2016, SWANA has recorded 28 additional MSW related fatalities, with 18 third-party and 10 employee deaths. There have been at least three fatal incidents per week for each of the past three weeks.

In addition to collecting and analyzing fatality data, SWANA and its Chapters provide information and support through the organization’s Safety Ambassador Program. These Ambassadors serve as safety leaders within the Chapter to help reduce accidents and injuries by distributing information, providing training, and providing sympathy and educational outreach to an organization that suffers a fatality.

Providing education is a key component of SWANA’s renewed focus on safety, and SWANA will hold a safety seminar in Texas in November in response to the 9 fatal incidents that have occurred in Texas over the past four months. The half-day program will provide attendees with tools that they can use to improve the safety culture in their organizations and reduce injuries and accidents.

Past figures and efforts

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the final 2014 figures for industry and occupational fatality data in April.

The occupation of refuse and recycling collector remained the fifth most dangerous in the country.

There were a total of 27 fatalities in 2014, down from 33 in 2013. Of those, 18 occurred in the private sector and nine in the public sector.

The fatality rate for refuse and recycling collectors rose to 35.8 per 100,000 workers for the year in 2014 from a rate of 33 in 2013 and 32.3 in 2012.

The BLS numbers also looked at industry-wide figures, showing solid waste collection as having 40 fatalities in 2014. Of those, 27 occurred in the private sector and 13 in the public sector. Refuse and recyclable material collectors account for two-thirds of the fatalities in the solid waste collection industry.


Industry safety remains a major concern of both industry associations and leaders.

Kenneth M. Baylor, a principal at Advanced Leadership Solutions and a long-time executive with stints at Waste Management, Republic Services and, most recently, Progressive Waste Solutions, wrote an op ed for Waste360 in August taking the industry to task for its approach on safety.

“It is well past the time to stop making excuses and look beyond regulatory compliance programs to establish safe work environments for all of our people as well as the communities they so proudly serve. Enough of the long-term plans; let’s do it now!,” Baylor wrote.

Both the NWRA and SWANA penned responses to Baylor’s piece. NWRA President and CEO Sharon H. Kneiss’s piece can be seen here.

Biderman’s response was published by WasteDive.

The NWRA has made safety a key part of its three-year strategic plan. It has also organized three safety stand downs in 2016. The first, in January, focused on reducing accidents, fatalities and injuries related to truck backing incidents. In April, the second featured a theme of water, rest and shade and emphasized keeping collection workers safe during hot weather. Lastly, in August the third stand down was a weeklong training and awareness initiative focused around added safety precautions to protect students, teachers and families from harm.

Yesterday, the NWRA released the results of that third Stand Down event. The event, which took place from August 22 through 26, drew 190 participants from 133 companies who all registered and took part in the weeklong event. This rate is equivalent to more than 70 percent of private industry, a 5 percent growth over the spring Stand Down on Water, Rest & Shade, according to NWRA. Beyond NWRA member companies, participation included both private and municipal members of the California Refuse and Recycling Council, the Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association, the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association, the International Scrap Recycling Institute and SWANA as well as a plethora of NWRA private members.

During this Stand Down, the NWRA also got the support from groups outside the industry. AAA, at a national level, became a partner joining NWRA in a national Twitter Chat for one hour on the second day of the Stand Down.

The National School Transportation Association, First Student (the nation’s largest fleet of School buses and school bus operators,) Greyhound and First Transportation also supported the Stand Down and helped to spread their work among their operations.

In Roanoke, Va., TV stations WFXR and WWCW ran four segments on the Stand Down. The segments each included an interview with Jeff Crate, President of Waste Resources Services LLC (an NWRA member.)

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