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Safety: Can Waste Get Out of the Top 10 Most Dangerous Occupations?

TAGS: Business

Ask any leader from any sized waste and recycling company, and he will say that safety is a top priority. Even with this ethos top of mind, we are still the fifth most dangerous occupation.

So, what will it take for the industry to get out of the top 10 most dangerous jobs?

Michael E. Hoffman from Stifel asked that exact question (and others) during the safety panel at the Waste360/Stifel Investors Summit. The speakers included:

  • Jason LeckPresident & Head of Safety, Leck Waste Services
  • Michael O'ConnorManaging Partner, Premier Waste Services
  • Shawn MandelVice President - Safety & Risk Management, Waste Connections, Inc.
  • Robert BarteeHead of Safety, WCA Waste Corporation

To set the stage, Hoffman asked the panel what safety looked like in terms of cost of services and from a pure math standpoint.

Mandel said that it is about 1-1.5% risk to revenue and that Waste Connections is constantly striving to get that number down. Leck stated that around 1% of their revenue is risk and that it is also part of an insurance captive. O'Connor cited that his company operates at about 1% as well and they have worked hard for 14 years to make safety a top priority. Bartee stated that WCA is running about 2%. The challenge is within the insurance market and they are looking at a cap.

The conversation turned to risk around acquisitions. Mandel said, “In terms of risk, we see our acquisitions as a real opportunity. Generally, in the first 12 months, we see reductions of up to 60-70% in incidents just with us infusing our safety culture and values. We get our technology and safety protocols out there within the first 90 days.”

“We share risk amongst the waste captive of 16 haulers and we only want to share risk with people that share the same risk level and safety mindset,” Leck shared. “We do not actively search for people who are high risk. We are seeing people who are proactive and using coaching procedures not as a disciplinary action but to build up those employees. They are part of what’s driving those insurance costs down.”

Bartee noted that, “We have done a myriad of acquisitions and the bigger companies had their culture in place. But, most of the smaller ones have zero safety culture. They are not used to drive-cam technology and reporting processes, so we do see quick returns, but the challenge is their hiring practices and culture. It is important to get to them fast in order to make changes and get results.”

Hoffman next asked what key things are you all doing that get your numbers to 2% or less?

Mandel: It starts with our executive leadership team. It all goes back to Ron Mittelstaedt and his servant leadership standpoint. We have to affect change for individuals and a culture that says everything else comes second to your safety. This allows employees to take ownership of this. It’s their first operating value and it is about making it personal and affecting behavior change as opposed to using the hammer.

Leck: We have seen results using reportable video as coachable events and building our safety talks and our training around actual incidents instead of using them as a disciplinarian action. If we do this within 48 hours, the ability to have that behavior changed increases exponentially and it seems to cut the chances in half of that incident happening again.

Bartee: When you look at our industry as a whole, we have been using drive cams since 2007 and it has steadily improved. I always say it is cheap insurance. This tool gives us a great opportunity to see what our drivers are doing and allow us to coach them. It helps us focus on safety, drive down risk numbers and focus on the employee. 

O’Connor: We have moved forward with technology and have never looked back. For drivers to see themselves in some of these incidents — the impact is incredible. None of our drivers are concerned, they actually like to have the technology.

Mandel continued, “Event recording technology is almost commonplace and it’s fully deployed in 85% or better in the industry. So, the professional driver appreciates that.” When asked if the technology should be regulated and required, Mandel responded that, “Even if it is, it would only be half of the issue. It is up to the haulers to act on the footage and what they see or it is for naught. It is all about training and learning from the incidents. We employ coaching effectiveness metrics – if they have exhibited a behavior, what is the likelihood that they would repeat that behavior? And our current rate is about 92-96% don’t repeat the same behavior once it has been identified and coached.”

Distracted driving

Distracted driving is a two-fold issue for this group. It affects their own drivers and the ones they meet on the road on a daily basis. Here is what they mentioned…

Mandel: With the advanced AI technology coming out, it will be a game changer for us and for the industry. It recognizes the driver looking at the cell phone, the nod off, lane departures, etc. It then triggers that event. It will give us more to coach, but the truth is that our drivers are getting better, but it is the individuals we share the roads with that make it harder for us. 

Leck: One of the things we have done is to coach everyone on a potential near miss or collision and use it as a training exercise for everyone. We can use feedback from employees in the field to help improve as well.

Bartee: The biggest thing you see when you look at our metal-on-metal collisions, is that 25% is a result of drivers running into our trucks. There have to be ramifications for people using their cell phones. We talk about “Slow Down to Get Around” and we have made great traction with states adopting that, but people do not look at a waste vehicle like they do emergency vehicles. It has to be enforced by law enforcement and they should be looked at in the same way as emergency vehicles. We need to be respected and until we have that, it will not change.

Hoffman asked Michael O’Connor if he thinks it is possible to get out of the top 10 most dangerous occupations in the next 10 years. O’Connor shared that, “The next 10 years will be a big challenge for our industry. With drivers retiring and the average age of a garbage person being 55, we will need to train new drivers. It will be a challenge with that issue and with distracted driving on the rise.”

Sage safety advice

Even though the safety challenge is ongoing, the panel did end with some evergreen and useful advice. The final question Hoffman posed to the group was what final message do you want to share with the 12,000 smaller companies out there around safety?

The common theme was all about making it personal and these four pieces of advice are invaluable…

  1. You have to take it personally and learn the lessons of the industry without having to tell a family that a loved one has died.
  2. Make sure every employee goes home safe to their family every day. Every decision needs to be built around that. Whether it’s technology or any other safety program, do whatever you can to ensure this happens.
  3. Get involved in the industry on a safety level. There are resources here to help and the entire panel is there for the smaller haulers.
  4. Technology is readily available and it has progressed tremendously. Use it.


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