Some days I think the solid waste and recycling industries are making great strides in improving workplace safety and reducing fatalities, accidents and injuries. Other days I’m not so sure.
Last month, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its preliminary summary of workplace injuries and illnesses in the United States for 2010. BLS reports that the overall injury and illness (incidence) rate for solid waste collection employees was 5.3 per 100 full-time employees and was 5.7 for landfill employees. This compares very favorably to BLS’s 2009 data, in which collection employees had an incidence rate of 6.1, and landfill employees had an incidence rate of 5.9.
The 13 percent improvement on the collection side continues an overall downward trend for the industry that started about a decade ago. Back in 2000, the solid waste collection employee incidence rate was about 10. This means the industry has cut the frequency of workplace injuries and illnesses nearly in half in 10 years, a significant accomplishment.
But this is no time to be popping champagne corks. Over the past few months, solid waste companies and local sanitation departments have been involved in a variety of accidents, many of them resulting in the death of a worker or a third party. There are several common threads in these fatal accidents: First, the majority of them involve small waste haulers. Second, when a worker is killed, it appears to be the result of an unsafe behavior. Finally, when a third party is killed — usually the driver of a car — the driver usually caused the accident.
For example, in late October, a 20-year-old helper for a small hauler in North Carolina was killed when he fell off the riding step of a backing residential collection truck and was run over by the truck. Yes, he was on the riding step while the truck was backing, in violation of the ANSI Z245.1 standard. A few days later, a passenger in a car was killed when the car he was riding in — driven by his 22 year old son — crashed into the back of a collection truck waiting to make a right turn in Delaware. The passenger was not wearing his safety belt.
While the industry’s incidence rate keeps declining, we still are involved in fatal accidents on a weekly basis, and in some recent weeks, more often than that. The BLS’s 2010 fatality data discussed in this column last month, which showed an increase in collection worker fatalities last year, confirms the frequency of these tragic events.
How can we get small haulers and local governments to pay closer attention to safety? NSWMA held a safety program in New York City last month. About 10 companies out of the 150 licensed carters in New York City sent attendees, and no one from the City’s Department of Sanitation attended. Unless others start showing an interest in the sort of safety information made available by NSWMA at such sessions, we will continue to have a high workplace fatality rate. It’s time for the owners of small companies and the directors of the sanitation departments to stop attending funerals and start attending safety programs.