Twenty-six solid waste and recycling collection workers died on the job during 2010, surging from 20 fatalities in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The increase ensured that the job of waste industry collection worker remained the seventh most dangerous job in the America for the second year in a row.

While safety experts find the higher death toll troubling, they point out the downward trend of fatal accidents in recent years. “In 2001, the fatal work injury rate was 55.4 per 100,000 workers,” says David Biderman, general counsel and safety director with the Washington, D.C.-based National Solid Wastes Management Association. “In 2010, the rate was 29.8. This shows that despite the increase, the overall trend has been significantly down.”

The trend in fatalities has been headed down since 2003 when 43 collection workers died. By 2009, despite a couple of upticks, fatalities had declined to 20. Last year, 2010, of course, showed another uptick.

“We have seen a significant decrease in fatalities over the years,” says Tom Parker, a former president of SWANA and currently the western region solid waste market leader in the Albuquerque offices of CDM, a consulting, engineering, construction and operations firm with public and private clients, including solid waste clients, around the world. “I think we can thank automated collection trucks, rear video cameras, personal protective equipment, automated and other advancing technology for this progress.”

Some, if not all, of this year’s increase may stem from variations often present in year-over-year statistical comparisons. “While the overall trend for fatalities is down, there are fluctuations,” says David Utterback, senior health scientist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Cincinnati.

In 2007, for example, 18 collection workers died on the job, continues Utterback, but a year later, in 2008, 30 workers died.

After analyzing fatality data among collection workers for more than a decade, solid waste safety professionals note that most fatal accidents occur in small hauling companies and in the collection departments of small municipalities, says NSWMA’s Biderman.

“We have to help small haulers, both private and public with programs that are accessible,” says Parker. “Since small haulers often don’t have time to go to conferences, perhaps we could develop online safety education programs they could use.”

Such programs could address the various causes of death, paying special attention to the most common causes. “Statistics highlight three leading types of accidents,” Biderman says. “One is when a worker is struck by another vehicle that is going too fast and trying to pass. A distracted driver or an older person with slow reaction times might be involved in this type of accident.”

NSWMA has targeted distracted and overly aggressive drivers with a safety campaign entitled “Slow Down To Get Around.” It includes truck decals, television and radio commercials, a bill stuffer and a flyer produced in partnership with NIOSH.

A second common accident, according to Biderman, occurs when a collection truck backs into a worker. To combat this and other life-threatening safety failures, NSWMA offers regional safety training programs for managers and supervisors. The Association also puts together customized training programs for individual companies and local governments.

For details on these programs email safe@envasns.org.

The third major cause of death among collection workers is a medical event, such as a stroke or a heart attack. As the work force ages, Biderman warns, companies and municipal governments must monitor the physical condition of collection workers who get in and out of a truck 500 times a day.

“Companies (and by implication municipalities) that drill safety,” Biderman says, “have fewer accidents where workers get killed.”