Safety problems persist for waste and recycling industries

Number of fatalities in 2014, however, decreases from 2013.

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September 18, 2015

The recently released United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) “2014 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary” shows that “refuse and recyclable material collectors, as a category ranked fifth among American workers, with a total of 27 fatalities, down from 33 in 2013,” according to a news release issued by the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), Washington.

The only occupations with higher fatality rates, according to the report, were: logging workers; fishers and related fishing workers; aircraft pilots and flight engineers; and roofers. Electrical power-line installers and repairers; farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers; structural iron and steel workers; driver/sales workers and truck drivers; and first-line supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers all had lower fatality rates.

Despite the 2014 decrease in waste and recycling industry fatalities, the fatality rate rose from 33 to 35.8 per 100,000 workers for the year, as the sector employed fewer overall people in 2014. After reaching a 12-year high in 2003, fatalities in the sector fell by more than half between 2003 and 2007, according to the NWRA. Since then, however, fatalities have been trending upward.

In response to that trend, the NWRA, which represents more than 800 private sector waste and recycling companies, says it has spearheaded a comprehensive industry-wide series of initiatives in concert with its member companies aimed at reducing fatalities, injuries and accidents.

“Workers in our industry provide a vital public health and environmental service for every community nationwide, and their safety is a shared responsibility of both their employer and residents in the communities they serve,” says Sharon H. Kneiss, president and CEO of NWRA. “The lower [number] of fatalities shows that the collective safety efforts of the solid waste and recycling industry may be an indicator of positive progress, but the fact that the percentage rate of fatalities is up underscores the need for a continued relentless focus on lowering the rate of accidents, injuries and fatalities,” she adds.

Over the past three years, NWRA and its chapters nationwide have introduced “Slow Down to Get Around” legislation, which is now the law in nine states and under consideration in several more. These laws require motorists to slow down when waste and recycling collection vehicles are stopped and workers are getting on and off, just as motorists are required to slow down in construction work zones, stop for school buses or pull over for emergency vehicles. A 2014 Harris survey conducted by NWRA found that some motorists admitted to being tempted to actually speed around waste and collection vehicles. However, when the BLS data was shared with respondents, an overwhelming majority supported legislation to protect these workers.

“A majority of these fatalities could have been prevented, as these workers are struck by passing vehicles,” says John Haudenshield, NWRA director of safety. “Whether it is driver apathy or distracted driving or other factors, the leading safety voices representing companies across our industry have been engaged in a multi-year effort to ensure we have the practical tools and resources available to all of our members that will help us reverse these trends.”

Other initiatives organized by NWRA or its members include:

  • hosting safety seminars for haulers, processors and other stakeholders in the waste and recycling collection process;
  • the development of safety manuals for drivers and workers;
  • creation of the Driver Certification program for waste and recycling collection vehicle operators;
  • temporary worker safety training;
  • Safety Monday, a bilingual poster sent each week with tips to prevent accidents and injuries;
  • commercial vehicle safety inspection briefings and demonstrations;
  • online safety webinars and education sessions at industry conferences to promote best practices; and
  • championing Slow Down to Get Around, which is now the law in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.