The start of a new year gives safety managers and others a fresh start in the constant effort to reduce fatalities, accidents and injuries involving solid waste employees and vehicles. Many new corporate and municipal safety programs are implemented in January, with the idea being that employees will improve their safety performance in the year ahead.

The area of focus varies, but the overarching objective is to prevent fatal and/or costly accidents. Regardless of whether you are a national company with operations in most states or a small hauler with a few trucks, the goal is the same: collect and dispose of waste and recyclables safely.

The solid waste industry’s safety performance has improved dramatically in recent years. According to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the overall injury and illness rate for solid waste employers has declined by about 37 percent since 2003. In 2009, the rate was 5.2 per 100 full-time employees. The number of employees killed in workplace accidents has decreased substantially as well, with BLS reporting 21 waste collection employee fatalities in 2009 compared to 34 in 2008.

However, substantial challenges remain. First, even with the lower fatality rate, according to the Department of Labor, waste collection employees still work in one of the 10 most hazardous occupations in the United States, and they have an injury rate that is well above the overall national average. Second, a disproportionate number of these fatalities are occurring at smaller hauling firms and municipal sanitation departments. For example, six collection worker fatalities during the last two months of 2010 involved employees at such entities.

Third, the number of fatal third-party accidents — those in which other motorists and pedestrians are killed — has not declined. The frequency of accidents in which a motorist crosses into the path of an oncoming garbage truck or drives into the back of a stopped or slowing truck suggests an increase in distracted driving. Also, there have been several high-profile accidents involving pedestrians wearing headphones over the past year.

Finally, both the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have finalized new programs, have proposed new rules or intend to propose new regulations that would affect the industry’s operations.