Recently, a material recovery facility (MRF) maintenance technician at a new single-stream plant scaled a ladder to check a conveyor belt. Some plastic bags had wrapped around part of the belt and were affecting operations.

The tech leaned in to get a better look, and the ladder tipped. Instinctively, he stuck out his arm to catch himself. Instead, a spinning pulley caught his hand. He lived, but the pulley ripped off a piece of his hand.

Question: Was this the result of (a) failing to follow ladder safety rules or (b) a larger safety issue characteristic of new, vastly more sophisticated single-stream MRFs? Answer: While the tech needed a ladder safety review, the real problem had more to do with the sophisticated technologies and complex design characteristic of today's new single-stream facilities. Observers attribute the accident to difficult maintenance access in an area where a permanent workspace should have been installed.

New Challenges

Over the past two decades, the recycling industry became expert at safety for dual-stream MRFs, says Susan Eppes, owner and principal with EST Solutions Inc., a Houston-based safety consulting firm. “In dual-stream MRFs, safety focused on the sorters — the people on the floor doing the work — and on maintenance technicians handling preventive maintenance and repairs,” Eppes says. “Those systems were simple compared to the complex single-stream MRFs of today. This is a whole different ball game.”

Single-stream facilities operate differently than their dual-stream kin. According to Eppes, single-stream workers no longer sort as much by hand. Instead, they manage automated sorting equipment via control panels built onto the walls of the MRF, high above the equipment. Their workspaces are platforms built to provide access to the control panels. The platforms use walls, high railings and plenty of signs to promote fall protection.

Quality control sorters also work on the platforms, along the conveyor lines, again above and away from the heavy equipment on the floor. They, too, must follow fall protection procedures, while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, hard hats, goggles and so on — all of which are familiar to sorters.

While these are not unimportant safety considerations, they are familiar to experienced MRF sorters. Maintenance technicians, however, face dramatically different safety challenges than they used to.

“There is a lot more equipment,” says Tom Powers, safety and environment director for recycling services with Houston-based Waste Management. “For example, there are more screens, and the screens are configured in many layers. In addition, there are new advanced machines like optical sorters. Each piece of equipment is energized and must be locked out and tagged out prior to maintenance. That means identifying the sources of energy, and developing safe procedures for locking out each piece of equipment.”

Because single-stream facilities are so new, the safety protocols for their problems, like the problem of plastic wrapping around components of conveyor belts, are only just being developed. And so over the next couple of years, industry safety professionals will be working to re-invent safety for today's new single-stream MRFs.