Report indicates recycling workers injured at twice the rate of average workers

By ensuring health and safety compliance across the industry, the study’s authors say cities can create good and safe recycling jobs.

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A new study, “Safe & Sustainable Recycling: Protecting Workers who Protect the Planet,” by environmental, occupational safety and community benefits experts in collaboration with researchers at the University of Illinois School of Public Health finds that recycling work is unnecessarily hazardous to workers’ health and safety. From 2011 to 2013, 17 recycling workers died on the job in the U.S. People in this occupation are more than twice as likely to be injured at work as the average worker, the study adds.

By ensuring health and safety compliance across the industry, the study’s authors say cities can create good and safe recycling jobs. The report offers policy recommendations for cities to help ensure worker safety.

Key findings from the report include:

  • The industry’s high injury and fatality rates are a result of unsafe working conditions around heavy machinery and exposure to hazardous items, such as hypodermic needles, toxic chemicals and animal carcasses, on sorting lines.
  • Many waste and recycling companies rely heavily on temporary workers, who have fewer workplace protections and are less likely to be informed of their legal right to a safe and healthy workplace.

“People put dangerous stuff in recycling bins,” says Mirna Santizo, who worked at a recycling facility for 12 years, sorting recycling from Boston and from other cities. “We found lots of broken glass and needles. Sometimes workers were punctured and hurt from the needles.”

"Recycling is the right thing to do, but we have to do it the right way," says Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, Longmeadow, Massachusetts. "That means educating and empowering recycling workers and using proven prevention strategies, which we know will reduce exposure to hazardous conditions. That’s how we can avoid tragedies like the death of a recycling worker just last week in Florida.”

Vogel refers to a man who was crushed to death June 15, 2015, in a cardboard compactor while working at a recycling plant in Winter Garden, Florida.

Monica Wilson of report contributor GAIA (Global Alliance of Incinerator Alternatives), with U.S. offices in Berkeley, California, says, “If we are serious about solving the world’s ecological crises, we need to invest in protecting the lives and livelihoods of workers whose daily efforts are reducing pollution, conserving precious resources and mitigating climate change.”

To create good and safe recycling jobs, the authors, who include experts at the University of Illinois, Chicago Hospital and Health Sciences System and Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), recommend:

  • City governments evaluate the health and safety records of recycling companies and require these companies to have comprehensive worker safety programs.
  • The recycling industry ends the use of temporary workers; and
  • Cities enact strong community education programs for greater household separation of waste to minimize dangerous contaminants entering the recycling stream.

According to the report, unionized workers, with negotiated contracts, enjoy more effective enforcement of legally mandated health and safety protections and also have the ability to bargain for additional safeguards to improve working conditions.

“Many cities have figured out how to collect recycling in ways that help our environment and create good, safe jobs. It's time to extend that approach to every city and to every step of the recycling chain, starting with recycling sorting facilities,” says Hays Witt with the Oakland, California-based Partnership for Working Families, a report contributor.