Safety First

Safety First: The Road from Ruin

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Looking for precedents in improving industry-wide safety standards.

This month, a county newspaper reported that a town public works employee died from injuries suffered in a tragic accident while working on the back of a sanitation truck. The vehicle struck a utility pole while backing, crushing him. This was the third in a series of deaths in the county over several years related to the waste and recycling. A highway worker was killed in 2011 when he was run over by a dump truck that was backing up at the town’s sanitation and recycling center. In 2005 another worker died after falling off the back of a sanitation truck. Although measures to prevent such deaths were probably put in place in response to this trio of fatalities, they were obviously not successful.

Continuing high injury and fatality rates throughout the solid waste and recycling industry indicate the need for a change in the way business is conducted. Thus, the Environmental Industry Associations’ recent strategic plan has identified the need for safety as a core value throughout the industry. The ultimate industry goal should be that all work related injuries and deaths can and should be prevented.

To achieve this lofty goal, management must be accountable for safety and health issues. Leadership actions need to deliver safety performance excellence, while leveraging learning from shared best practices across the entire industry. When management personnel are involved in the safety process, good things happen.

November 13, 2013 will mark the 204th birthday of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, known to history as the “father of American naval ordnance.” Dahlgren, however, almost didn’t make it past his 40th birthday.

In November 1849, he was test firing a 32-pound cannon to determine its range when suddenly the piece exploded, killing a sailor on the gun crew and nearly killing Dahlgren.

The incident spurred Dahlgren to develop detailed specifications for the manufacture and testing of cannons, yielding safer and more reliable weapons for the Navy than ever before. Unlike previous American wars, not a single Dahlgren smoothbore exploded during combat while used in the Civil War.

As a result of his measured response to an identified problem, John Dahlgren instituted into the Navy a culture of safety that had not existed before and that persists to this day. In effect, safety was made a core value for conducting naval operations both at sea and in the air.

Mining is another industry with an extensive history of safety shortcomings. Though long considered one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, total deaths in all types of U.S. mining, which had averaged 1,500 or more per year during earlier decades, decreased on average during the 1990s to under 100 per year. Historic lows of 35 total deaths were reached in 2009 and 2012. The average annual injuries to miners in all segments of the mining industry have also decreased steadily.

This dramatic change was enabled by the introduction of vastly safer and more efficient mining machines and systems, safer mining methods, a growing awareness of the importance of effective accident prevention programs among both management and miners, and a more cooperative attitude toward safety issues by the mining industry, labor and government. Mining is now recognized as one of the safest industries, with a lower rate of injuries and illnesses per 100 employees than the waste and recycling industry, agriculture, construction or retail trades.

This is the road that the solid waste and recycling industry needs to follow. The toll of deaths, injuries and destruction in our industry is driving the same search for answers that stabilized the U.S. Navy and the mining industry. Technology, effective training and education programs and best practices need to be evaluated and implemented where they make sense.

The whole industry needs to identify and quantify risks and develop realistic mitigation responses. And these mitigation responses need to be implemented and followed by everyone!

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What's Safety First?

Phil Hagan, director of safety for the National Waste & Recycling Associa, keeps an eye on safety issues affecting the waste and recycling industries.

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Phil Hagan

Phil Hagan is the Director of Safety for the National Waste & Recycling Association, a practicing attorney and teaches at Georgetown University.
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