Even a momentary distraction can lead to accidents and/or injuries.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fell while walking in the State Department garage and broke her elbow last month. Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor was rushing to catch a plane from New York City to Washington to meet senators and fractured a bone in her ankle. I was recently stopped by a police officer in Washington because I allegedly did not come to a complete stop at a stop sign.
What does any of this have to do with solid waste and recycling safety?
All three of these incidents probably occurred because the individuals involved were not focused on safety. I am not a mind reader, but I suspect that Mss. Clinton and Sotomayor had other things on their minds when their injuries occurred. I know that when the friendly representative of the D.C. government stopped me, I was distracted by the rain, whether I was going to repair or replace the dryer in my house, and a conference call scheduled later that morning.
Many accidents and injuries in the solid waste industry happen for similar reasons. Someone is distracted. Perhaps your driver is worried about how he is going to pay for his kids' braces. A heavy equipment operator is talking on the walkie-talkie and doesn't see someone scavenging something out of the trash. Certainly, many motorists are talking on their cell phones, changing the radio station, eating or drinking, or (gasp!) texting while driving.
How do we get our employees to focus on safety and get motorists to pay better attention to the solid waste and recycling collection vehicles and personnel in their neighborhoods?
Solid waste managers and supervisors need to make sure they include safety as part of their regular tailgate talks and hold frequent safety committee meetings. A recession is no excuse to reduce route observations or other safety programs. On rainy days, remind drivers to take it easy and not rush. If it's hot, remind your workers to drink water regularly. Make sure that pre-trip and post-trip inspections are thoroughly performed every day.
Our industry may not be able to influence whether motorists turn off their cell phones and other electronic toys while driving their cars. Given that such distractions exist, we need to make sure our employees and vehicles are visible, even in the rain or dark. This means ensuring all workers (both employees and temporary workers) wear high-visibility vests or apparel. This means “lighting up the truck” with lighting packages that make it difficult for a lawyer to argue that his client “didn't see the truck.”
At least one company has painted the backs of their trucks bright yellow to make them more visible to motorists. Many companies and local governments have placed our “Slow Down to Get Around” stickers on their trucks (contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want them — they're free!).
There appears to have been an uptick in accidents during the first half of 2009 in which a solid waste collection employee has been killed. At WasteExpo last month, I spoke with several NSWMA members and others about this, and they agreed that although the total number of injuries and claims appears to be the same as 2008, they are seeing an increase in “catastrophic” accidents. One theory is that some solid waste employees are worried about their jobs or the declining value of their homes, and may not be as focused while on the job. I'm not sure I agree, but whatever employers can do to help their employees stay focused on working safely should help reduce fatalities and injuries.
By the way, I was able to talk the officer out of giving me a ticket. Now, I make sure that I come to a complete stop at all stop signs. I have changed my unsafe behavior. The challenge is to get your workers to change theirs.
David Biderman is general counsel for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. He oversees the organization's safety programs.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at email@example.com.