Safety is not a slogan

Features - Safety Focus

Why your facility needs a stellar safety culture.

January 2, 2018

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As of 2016, the solid waste industry was ranked as the fifth most dangerous occupation in the U.S. The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Maryland, has reported that fatality rates have continued to rise in 2017.

On average, someone is killed at a landfill every month in the United States, and more than 1.7 people are killed every week in the waste collection sector. Many more accidents occur. Most of these incidents were the result of someone performing an unsafe act—doing something he or she knew shouldn’t be done. Why?

Some point to a lack of training or inconsistent enforcement of safety policy. Others focus on stress—trying to do too much in too little time or having to multitask to excess. Still others assign cause to the work environment—an unpredictable waste stream, heavy equipment, untrained customers and weather conditions.

These are all common contributory causes, but the underlying problem—the root—is a safety breakdown throughout the system. Employees are safest when management provides direction and standard operating procedures (SOPs) detailing how to safely perform operational tasks.

Even when these SOPs are provided, management cannot force workers to follow them. Success in safety requires buy-in from every level of the organization (management and employees); buy-in requires a safety culture.

Most accidents and fatalities are not the result of one event, such as someone not wearing his or her hard hat or other proper personal protective equipment (PPE). They don’t result solely from employees who are in a hurry or who skipped their walk-around inspections. Nor do they result from meteor strikes or lightning bolts. Rather, accidents occur when many events line up to form a “perfect storm.”

A hypothetical accident

Let’s look at a hypothetical example. A customer at a transfer station trips and falls over the edge of the self-serve dumping area and is hit by a loader. The customer survives but is severely injured, requiring a long hospital stay and an expensive recovery process.

On average, someone is killed at a landfill every month in the United States, and more than 1.7 people are killed every week in the waste collection sector.

Let’s look at the factors that contributed to the accident:

1. No safety railing was present to prevent falling over the edge. The facility failed to plan for safety railings in the design phase and, despite several close calls, never made plans to add one.

2. The on-site staff failed to articulate safety guidelines (i.e., maintain a safe distance from the edge, ask for assistance with heavy objects) to customers. Some employees knew about these safety guidelines, but some didn’t. There was no consistent training or policy about what needed to be communicated to customers.

3. The loader operator who hit the customer was a known “cowboy” who practiced unsafe operating techniques. He had a history of near-misses and often worked too quickly or didn’t use proper backing techniques.

4. No rapid response alarm system was in place. Some facilities have a system where any employee with a radio can push a specific button on the radio to alert everyone to a potential incident. Despite this recycling facility having many close calls that could have been prevented by an observant staff member, no such system was installed or used.

5. Customers were required to wear PPE, such as a high-visibility safety vest, but not all employees knew or enforced this policy. PPE doesn’t always prevent accidents, but it increases the odds that an operator or spotter can see a person in a dangerous situation and prevent an incident.

6. The backup alarm on the loader was found to be inoperable. When asked why it wasn’t working, the operator said, “The neighbors were complaining, so I unplugged it in the morning. I guess I forgot to turn it back on.”

As you can see, safety incidents and accidents often are complicated and involve many factors. The solution might seem just as complicated; but, in reality, it’s quite simple. Safe facilities have strong, thriving safety cultures.

Complicit culture

Management and human resources, the employees, the customer and the loader operator contributed to this accident. Anyone and everyone could have prevented it had they made different choices.

This incident was caused by a lazy culture, and the problem starts at the top. Managers must set an example for working safely; they have to go the extra mile to do things the right way every time to the best of their abilities. They also are responsible for maintaining and implementing critical safety documents, such as emergency response, injury and illness prevention plans and SOPs. By doing so, managers create a safety culture employees can buy in to.

Neal Bolton, president of Blue Ridge Services of California, has nearly 40 years of experience in heavy construction and in landfill and recycling operations. He can be reached at