Informa Markets

Author Bio ▼

Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
February 10, 2014

Get the SHP newsletter

Daily health and safety news, job alerts and resources

On the wish list

The waste and recycling industry has been rebuked for having a poor health and safety record compared to other sectors. Nick Warburton talks to Chris Jones, chair of the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum, and hears how the industry is responding to its critics.

In June last year, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) launched a voluntary health, safety and welfare pledge for the waste and resource management sector at its joint conference with the Environmental Services Association (ESA). 
Designed to raise awareness and promote a stronger focus on health, safety and welfare issues, the pledge urged its members to go beyond the basic legal requirements and commit to making workplaces safer. 
The launch came on the back of the latest statistics, published by the HSE, which revealed that 16 people had died in the sector during 2012/2013. 
Only the previous September, the HSE had urged the industry to do more to improve worker safety after nine people were killed over a 12-week period.
For Chris Jones, chair of the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) Forum, a multi-party body comprised of organisations drawn from the sector, criticism of the waste industry has been justified, to a point.
“We have earned the hard way, over decades, a reputation for being unprofessional because the industry has been unprofessional on occasions and that needs to change,” he admits.
Where the industry stalwart begs to differ is in the perception that the entire sector has a poor safety record, particularly in relation to non-fatal accidents. Jones argues that the true picture isn’t being reflected in the press. 
“The waste industry is more diverse in its activities than most sectors and you find parts of the industry where the accident rates are exemplary even for what they do,” he counters.
“If you look at waste-to-energy plants, for example, they have a phenomenally low accident rate even compared to the power sector. On the other hand, other parts of the sector aren’t very good.”
Public perceptions of the industry probably don’t help but then it’s hard to appreciate fully the sheer breadth of activities and the range of organisations operating in it.  
The sector includes everything from multi-million pound material recycling facilities (MRFs) to small-scale furniture re-use projects; from community-run waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) reprocessing to large-scale food waste recycling at in-vessel composting (IVC) and anaerobic digestion (AD) plants; and from kerbside recycling collections to operating ships that export recycled materials. 
“It’s a bit dangerous to conclude things about such a diverse industry from broad statistics,” he reasons.
As director of Cory Environmental, one of the UK’s leading recycling, waste management and energy recovery companies, Jones is well placed to identify the unique challenges facing such a complex sector. 
One of the most formidable will be how the industry makes the transition away from the “make, use, dispose” culture that society has relied on for decades to a more circular economy in which competition for scarce resources is driving manufacturers to design for reuse. 
Such a rapidly changing environment inevitably creates new health and safety risks that need to be managed across a myriad of diverse businesses. Jones believes that the industry, rather than the HSE, is best placed to take the lead on responding to this challenge, which leads to his long-standing relationship with WISH.
Set up in 2001, originally under the HSE’s auspices, the move to appoint him as chair came about in 2008. WISH members fed back that the body would be more effective in getting its message across if someone from the sector oversaw its work.  
WISH’s core aim is to identify, devise and promote activities that improve industry health and safety standards. Working in partnership with other industry bodies, it produces guidance that is published as WISH-endorsed documents on the HSE’s website. The idea is to create a level playing field and encourage the wider sector to adopt this best practice.
“Unfortunately, smaller companies tend to spend less on safety,” he explains. “It’s not that they don’t care and that they set out to hurt people. They are just not as well informed, and in their business model it’s not so important.”
Tackling safety culture in small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) was one of the five objectives in WISH’s 2009-2013 strategy, as was leadership. Both objectives have made progress but more work is needed to encourage wider take-up across the sector, Jones admits.
In mid-November, WISH launched a leadership management/measurement tool as an online best practice guidance document. 
“Leadership is really important but the people that work in the waste industry are kind of unique,” he confides. 
“You have to like not being liked and working with unpleasant materials. To get those people to do what you need them to do and respond you need a particular kind of leadership, especially in health and safety. They are deeply cynical and that needs addressing.”
The guidance sets out certain standards that outline what good health and safety “leadership looks like”; the tool enables companies to measure “how far along that progression they are”.
WISH’s strategy also looked at how to improve competence in the sector. One of its working groups carried out an industry survey to glean views and, from this input, EU Skills and the Department for Business, Skills & Innovation have developed a new competency management system that is now available as a private standard.
“Particularly in the smaller business sector there is a perception that if you have been trained, you must be competent. What we’ve found is that people are trained but they don’t actually do what the training tells them to do and they are not competent,” he explains.
“We hope that the standard will get some wider adoption and, if it does, it will help the industry to manage up its competence level.”
Arguably more challenging has been a fourth objective to measure ill health and absence management in the workplace. Working with the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL), WISH produced a measurement tool last year. 
“We’ve been collecting data for two or three years and we’re starting to get an understanding of where the ill-health effects occur,” he explains. 
“We don’t know necessarily at the moment the causes. We are also refining the tool of measurement because you will only tackle a problem if you can clearly understand where it is occurring and what it is.”
Part of the problem, Jones continues, is that the HSE’s Riddor database has not been a great tool for collecting data. This slow, painstaking work means that the development of an ill-health management tool will take time. Even so, WISH is fully committed to reducing ill health, he says, and further work will be carried out as part of the new five-year strategy.
Progress on the final objective – reducing accidents by 10 per cent year-on-year – remains a moot point. The differences in opinion centre on a widely held perception that the sector has a poor record on tackling accidents, something that Jones hotly contests. The problem, he says, lies with the way the Riddor statistics are collected.  
“The waste sector Riddor stats are heavily contaminated by public administration and utilities and the way that the HSE handles the waste sector doesn’t allow us to have a clear indicator from Riddor,” he explains.
In an effort to build a more accurate picture, WISH has drawn on accident data collected by the ESA, which represents larger companies in the waste and recycling sector, such as MRF, AD and IVC operators. 
Back in 2003, the ESA asked all of its members to adopt a 10 per cent year-on-year reduction charter, placing an onus on members to submit accident reports. This data, Jones asserts, is “very clear, very specific and very detailed, far more so than we’d get out of Riddor”… and “tells us lots of valuable things about what’s going on in the industry”. 
Similar data has been sourced from the Local Authority Waste Safety & Health Forum (LAWS) for accident rates in the SME market. Analysis of this material reveals a contrasting picture to that painted by the HSE. 
“ESA data says that accident rates in the period from 2007-2012 fell by 70 per cent and that is more than 10 per cent year-on-year,” he points out. 
“Riddor says that accident rates in that period have fallen by about 15 per cent.”
Even so, more work needs to done, especially with SMEs, and Jones welcomes the CIWM’s pledge to raise awareness and get the safety message out to this hard-to-reach group. 
While WISH retains a collaborative relationship with the health and safety watchdog, he admits that there is always going to be tension between the HSE and the sector. The regulator will always want the industry to do more than it is prepared to do and can afford to do, and sometimes, he says, there are no right answers.
“You can swap one risk for another. Sometimes it doesn’t matter which way round you look at the problem, there isn’t a good solution.”
A case in point is glass collected from the kerbside; an age-old issue that has vexed the industry for more than a decade. 
Last year, WISH pulled together a working group, including the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the HSE, the ESA and local authorities to share knowledge and to work towards a practicable solution.
“The HSE will say that the noise at work regulations are very clear – you cannot expose people to noise above the first action levy without protection,” he explains. 
“The problem is that when you tip glass on glass, it makes a noise and we’ve tried everything you can imagine to reduce that noise but it can’t be made low enough when you are collecting glass as a separate recycling stream.”
The most practical solution perhaps would be to kit front-line workers with high-tech headphones that can filter out the sound of glass but don’t filter out the sound of approaching cars. But even this approach isn’t foolproof. 
“They are a great idea but they are heavy, they are sweaty in the summer, the guys won’t wear them and they break because they are fragile,” he says.
Since most fatal injuries in the industry are related to workplace transport, it makes sense for the HSE to focus much of its regulatory activity on this issue. Jones shares its concern. 
“One of the ways to make it safer is to have fewer vehicles on the road but that flies in the face of the fact that Defra and the public want us to collect different materials for recycling,” he argues.
“Every time you want us to collect another material, the only way to do it economically is to send another truck down a street. We’ve got more congestion, more people doing desperate things that can result in accidents and more interaction with the public, which has the potential to go wrong.”
Jones points out that assaults on refuse staff from the general public over disputes relating to waste and recycling collections have shot up in recent years. 
This leads him on to behavioural safety, an issue that has become more prominent in the sector in recent years.  
“More and more we are finding accidents because the individual doesn’t do something that they know they should do,” he explains. 
“They have had the training and they do know [what to do] but behaviourally they don’t quite believe in what they are doing. It’s what’s called a routine breach and that as a proportion of all serious accidents in the industry has grown enormously.”
Changing workplace culture will help to improve safety, he says. 
“People don’t think it’s all right to go out and drink and drive these days, so why do our guys think it’s still okay to ride on the back of dustcarts? They know people fall off and die but they still do it.”
Jones also believes that wider society has an important role to play in contributing to better safety standards. 
If the general public had a more positive perception of the sector, he argues, then it would attract more of the highly skilled workforce that is needed, particularly to manage the more complex pieces of high-tech kit. 
“We need instrument technicians but will they prefer to work on a MRF or a plant that is manufacturing soup? They’ll go and work in the latter because their perception is that it is a better job,” he says. “But if you can help us to reduce society’s impact on the environment, isn’t that more important?”
The WISH steering group will hold a summit meeting later this year to enable members and other industry stakeholders to review the progress made and help define the way the strategy and work lists are taken forward from 2015. 
While Jones has no illusions about the tough challenges ahead, he is confident that further health and safety gains will be made.
“I don’t underestimate how hard it is going to be to change culture and to get the politicians to see the bigger picture in a time of austerity, to get real money spent on improving safety issues,” he says. 
“But sometimes we can avoid that. We just need to talk to one another.” 

The Safety Conversation Podcast: Listen now!

The Safety Conversation with SHP (previously the Safety and Health Podcast) aims to bring you the latest news, insights and legislation updates in the form of interviews, discussions and panel debates from leading figures within the profession.

Find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts, subscribe and join the conversation today!

Related Topics

Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
david thomas
david thomas
10 years ago

Can any local authority officers reading this please contact me on [email protected] to discuss local authority (LAWS) involvement. Many thanks