There is no doubt that working in the waste industry can be a dangerous occupation. This is especially true for waste and recycling collection workers. The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) ranks waste collection as seventh most dangerous occupation when it comes to on-the-job fatalities. In 2010 there were 26 fatalities involving waste collection workers. While non-fatal injuries in the industry showed a decline during 2010, according to the BLS, waste collection workers still experience injuries at a rate higher than most other industries.

Waste collection workers face numerous hazards while on the job that can cause injury or death. Vehicle accidents and being struck by passing vehicles are two of the most common types of hazards faced. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the industry has focused on defensive driving and community education, such as the Slow Down to Get Around program, to address these two hazards. However, a disturbing number of injuries and deaths to collection workers are occurring when the worker is either struck by or falls off of the very truck they are working on. One has only to look at a few recent examples of these types of accidents to see that this is an area that requires more attention.

A municipal collection worker in Massachusetts died after striking his head on the pavement when he fell off the truck he was working on. At the time of the accident the worker was riding the rear step of a rear-load truck that was traveling approximately 30 miles per hour. The truck had driven over a depression in the roadway, which caused the worker to lose his balance and fall.

Another refuse collection worker’s legs were injured when he was run over by the garbage truck he was working on in Maryland. The 48-year-old worker was attempting to step into the cab of the truck while the truck was moving. His foot slipped on a wet step and he fell onto the roadway where he was run over by the rear tires.

A municipal sanitation worker in North Carolina died when he was run over by the collection truck he was working on. The worker was riding on the rear step of a rear-load truck that was backing down a residential street. The worker lost his balance, fell and was run over by the backing truck.

A refuse collection worker died when he was backed over by the truck he was working on. He and another worker were crossing behind the truck as it was backing. The worker was hit by the bumper of the backing truck and fell underneath the vehicle’s tires.

Recently, a 17-year-old refuse collection worker died after he fell off his truck and was run over by the truck. The worker was riding on the front of a collection truck and lost his balance and fell underneath the truck as it was traveling forward down the street.

These are just a sample of tragic accidents that have occurred in the past few years. In each of the above incidents at least one fundamental safety rule for working on or near refuse collection trucks was violated. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has clearly established best safety practices (NIOSH Publication No. 97-110) for drivers and collection workers designed to prevent these types of injuries and fatalities. While listing all of NIOSH’s recommended practices, which largely adopt the ANSI Z245.1 safety standard, is beyond the scope of this article (the NIOSH publication is available for free online), a sampling of these best safety practices demonstrates how most if not all of the above tragedies could have been prevented had the practices been followed.

• Riding steps should be used only when moving forward for short distances (0.2 mile or less) at slow speeds (10 miles per hour or less).
• Only approved riding steps that are located behind the rearmost axle of the vehicle should be used.
• Collection workers should never ride the steps when the vehicle is backing.
• Crew members should never cross or step behind the vehicle when it is backing.
• When backing, drivers should stop backing immediately if visual contact is lost with workers on foot.
• Collection workers should board or dismount from the vehicle only when it has completely stopped and the driver is aware of the collection workers’ location.

NIOSH released this publication more than ten years ago, yet far too many waste companies and municipal sanitation entities are not following these recommended safety practices or those set forth in the current version of the Z245.1 standard. The industry as a whole will greatly benefit if company owners, safety managers and supervisors will ensure that their organization’s safety policies are in line with these guidelines. It can be a matter of life or death.

Bruce Hooker works for Mattei Insurance Services, Inc. based in Sacramento, Calif.