Trash Talk

The injuries and fatalities in this industry are largely preventable, and you can help.

Question:What has four wheels and flies?
Answer: A garbage truck. Get it?
It’s easy to make light of the solid waste industry, or, for those above such things, to take it entirely for granted. The reality, however, is that without it, civilization as we know it would not last long. And things would get putrid pretty quickly.

For the men and women involved in the industry—in the United States, they include about 130,000 workers on the collection side and another 100,000 or so on the disposal side—it’s a sometimes thankless job that affords outdoor work, physical activity, a certain measure of independence, and the satisfaction of knowing that what they do is important. It’s also a job with hazards around every corner.

Slow Down to Get Around
Struck-by incidents are high on the list of the industry’s hazards and getting higher all the time, said David Biderman, the general counsel and unofficial safety director for the National Solid Waste Management Association. “When people are driving down the street, the garbage collector is this faceless, anonymous person,” he says. “You may not necessarily know that there’s going to be a man crossing the street to get the trash, and you speed up to go around that garbage truck, and—boom—you run into him, or you run into the back of the truck because you’re distracted.Happens all the time.”

It happens so frequently, in fact, that NSWMA went to OSHA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration seeking change and assistance. Using OSHA grant funding, the association launched the “Slow Down to Get Around” campaign, consisting of radio ads that ran in 10 markets earlier this year and decals emblazoned with the slogan to place on the bulky fleets. It started doling out the decals for free at the beginning of May and by the end of the month had filled 2,000 orders. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Biderman says, noting the association is also offering “state-of-the-art” training for truck drivers and helpers, initially for free, with the hope that companies will return for more.

Data from the last two years show the percentage of industry fatalities from struck-bys is actually increasing, Biderman adds. “Everybody knows that motorists are a hazard, and everybody knows it’s getting worse,” he says. “More people have cell phones and BlackBerrys, and they’re not driving as safely as they should. It’s an increasing problem, which is why we’re doing all we can to help reduce the frequency of these things.We want motorists to think, ‘You know, that’s somebody’s dad up there, that’s somebody’s brother; maybe I don’t need to speed around a garbage truck at 25 mph.Maybe I need to treat that truck more like a school bus.’”

To further combat the problem, many companies have begun adding additional lights to the vehicles and painting the trucks’ backs in hi-vis or bright, school-bus yellow. Time will tell if such measures help decrease struck-bys; meanwhile, they do nothing for the industry’s leading cause of fatalities, which is backing incidents. These happen primarily when the trucks are backing into tight spaces or cul-de-sacs and the helpers are, despite their training, riding on the step. “We have developed a national standard that instructs people not to be on the step when the truck is going backward, because if you fall off at that point, you’re going to end up under the wheel,” which is what takes place way too often, Biderman says.

Monster Trucks
Another important and too-frequent hazard in the industry involves workers’ failure to perform proper lockout/tagout procedures during maintenance and cleaning. “Everybody in the solid waste business knows that these trucks are dangerous, that you have to do more than just take the key out. But some people don’t even take the key out,” Biderman says. “Sometimes it’s a matter of the truck not working properly, and the guy tries to fix it. He doesn’t lock out and tag out the equipment, and he inadvertently starts the thing, and he falls and gets smushed. People forget their training in the heat of the moment and—boom. These incidents drive me absolutely crazy because they’re preventable.” The frustration Biderman expresses is no doubt a form of “crazy” to which many safety professionals can relate, but at the end of the day it’s clear he has every bit as much respect for the workers he represents as anguish over those who never make it home from their shift.

“Look, it takes a certain type of person to want to do this kind of work,” he says. “But if you interview most garbage men or you listen to them every day, like I do, you see that they’re very proud that they’re garbage men. And, really, they should be, because without them, where the hell would we be?”

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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