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December 4, 2013

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Waste and recycling safety

Like all industries, waste and recycling has its own unique health and safety challenges. Frank Angear looks at recent developments and the role of PPE.

Each injury and fatality that happens as a result of work is one too many. Since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the numbers of injuries and fatalities have steadily decreased in most sectors but not in the waste and recycling industry. 

The latest figures released by the HSE show the number of fatal injuries in the waste and recycling sector throughout 2012/2013 has doubled. During this period, 12 employees were fatally injured in the workplace. 
 
Compared to the five-year industry average of eight, this makes waste and recycling the sector with the highest number of employee deaths.
 
Although the waste and recycling industry only accounts for about 0.6 per cent of employees, it accounts for 2.8 per cent of reported injuries to employees and the sector is growing rapidly with over 190,000 people expected to work in the waste and recycling industry by 2020. The more the industry grows, the greater the potential for risks and increased accidents.
 
Individuals working in the industry are exposed to a high number of hazards, some of which have led to the injuries reported by the HSE. A third of the fatalities reported were due to employees being struck by vehicles, a third of major injuries were due to slips and trips and almost half of reported over-seven-day injuries were due to handling — a broad category which includes work-related injuries due to strains, sprains, lifting, carrying, pushing or pulling loads, trapped fingers and cuts from sharp objects. Figures from the HSE have shown an increase in injuries in waste collection, treatment and disposal. 
 
Industry action
 
Following a summit that took place in February 2013 between waste leaders and safety officials to reduce fatalities and serious injuries in the waste and recycling industry, the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) Forum, together with the HSE, created a blueprint which features a five-prong plan in June 2013.
 
WISH is a multi-party forum made up of representatives from the HSE, main trade associations, professional associations, trade unions, recycling organisations and national and local government bodies involved in waste management and recycling. Its purpose is to provide information, identify solutions and stimulate action across the industry to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of those working in the industry and those affected by its activities.
 
The WISH Forum’s blueprint outlines 24 immediate action points under five strategic themes:
 
  • providing strong leadership;
  • involving the workforce;
  • building competence;
  • creating healthier and safer workplaces; and 
  • providing support for small-to-medium sized employers. 
 
The blueprint is intended to cover the five-year period up to 2018; WISH will be reviewing the plan on a yearly basis.
 
Health and safety pledge
 
In June 2013, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) launched a voluntary health, safety and welfare pledge for the waste and resource management sector. The purpose of the pledge is to help raise awareness and promote a stronger focus on health, safety and wellness issues. The pledge asks organisations to go beyond the basic legal requirements and commit to doing more to make workplaces healthier and safer.
 
The CIWM is encouraging the waste and recycling industry to focus on its internal practices and systems to increase employee health and wellbeing, while cementing a long-term drive towards eliminating work-related incidents.
 
The pledge aims to support the new health and safety strategy for the waste industry, with a cut in incident rates by 10 per cent year-on-year and reduce the number of fatalities to zero. The pledge has support from major industry bodies, including the Environmental Services Association and the WISH Forum.
 
The waste and recycling industry is a growing sector, which has seen some significant emerging trends in recent years, such as anaerobic digestion and material recovery facilities (MRFs).
 
Anaerobic digestion plants take food waste from local communities, restaurants and supermarkets and turn the material into biogas and nutrient rich digestate, which in turn helps tackle soil erosion/degradation. It is a biological process with many associated risks, including flammable atmospheres, fire and explosion, toxic gases, confined spaces, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) etc. It also incorporates gas handling and gas storage.
 
The number of anaerobic digestion plants has almost doubled since September 2011. 
 
Health and safety management in anaerobic digestion will need to enable project managers to develop robust systems and practical skills to ensure the safety of the workforce, from the environmental planning process through to the commissioning and running of the plant. 
 
MRFs have been another important growth area in the waste and recycling industry in recent years.
 
The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) recently carried out research on the occupational hygiene implications of processing recycling materials, which showed there to be an increased risk of exposure to airborne dust and bioaerosols.
 
The study measured exposures to substances hazardous to health at all stages of the recycling process, with health reports including skin, respiratory, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal and dexterity problems. Overall, 84 per cent of workers reported health problems attributable to their job.
 
It is the employers’ responsibility to conform to the COSHH Regulations. One measure employers can take is to provide effective ventilation and ensure the correct wearing of respirators for all workers. Employers need to ensure there is greater focus on applying the principles of good occupational hygiene control and that all staff are given the training and equipment to control health risks.
 
Personal protective equipment
 
One measure that can be taken to protect workers is the use and selection of respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to ensure workers are not inhaling hazardous substances. 
 
RPE provided to workers needs to have been correctly selected and fitted to the individual so that the appropriate respirator type is chosen. To ensure workers are adequately protected, organisations need to undertake face-fit testing for each employee. This is to make sure that the mask is capable of achieving a satisfactory seal on each user’s face and will not allow inward leakage, when worn correctly.
 
Studies carried out looking into RIDDOR reports that mention personal protective equipment (PPE) alarmingly showed that 43 per cent of accidents happened as a result of PPE not being selected or used, while a further 20 per cent were incorrectly specified or poorly maintained.
 
According to the HSE’s PPE research, 63 per cent of all reports of injury mention PPE to be the cause through failure to specify and use the correct PPE. It is vital, therefore, that all organisations, and especially those in the waste and recycling industry, make sure all workers are supplied with — and wear — the correct PPE at all times.
 
The research highlighted a number of reasons why employers and employees don’t necessarily have a full understanding of the need for appropriate PPE in the workplace, including risk assessment requirements, how to select PPE, ensuring its correct use and when to replace it. Around 22,000 accidents each year could be avoided through better selection and the use of PPE. 
 
One of the most common problems is that the wearer may find it uncomfortable or inconvenient to wear. As a consequence, they won’t always use it properly. It is vital that a company selects the right product.
 
However, simply providing workers with PPE does not mean that it will be used properly; therefore training, monitoring and enforcement of its use are also important. In addition, PPE has a limited working life and should be inspected and replaced regularly.
 
If it isn’t, many companies can be caught out and may find they are using counterfeit or illegal products.
 
Based on figures from the European Commission, counterfeiting activities cost the global economy over €200bn.
 
There are no specific figures on the volume of counterfeit PPE and fake safety certificates but, anecdotally at least, the problem is on the rise. In March, the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) issued a safety flash warning on counterfeit safety helmets. 
 
Fake PPE is produced very cheaply and is not subject to the rigorous testing procedures that reputable manufacturers are required to carry out on their products. 
 
While it might be tempting to buy cheaper products in times of austerity, safety should be a buyer’s paramount concern and cheaper counterfeit PPE can put people’s lives at risk. If products don’t fit properly, workers are less likely to wear them. PPE needs to meet EU standards to ensure it complies with health and safety legislation.
 
To place any item of PPE on the market in Europe requires the product to be CE marked. To gain a CE mark the product must meet all the relevant essential requirements of the EU PPE Directive. 
 
To help combat counterfeit and illegal PPE, the BSIF has set up the Registered Safety Supplier Scheme (RSSS). This ensures that all PPE is tested to the known performance requirement stipulated by CE standards and that buyers are purchasing from a recognised and reputable source.
 
It may seem quite onerous to implement these measures to ensure worker safety. However, the alternative is the risk of being faced with a large fine, a greater risk of injury and potentially a fatality in the workplace. 
 
Employers looking to reduce workers’ exposure to hazardous substances and potential injury can follow six simple steps:
  • find out what the health hazards are in the workplace;
  • decide how to prevent harm to health; 
  • provide the appropriate control measures to reduce harm to health; 
  • make sure these measures are used;
  • keep all control measures in good working order; and
  • provide monitoring and health surveillance.
 
Aiming for higher health and safety standards in this sector isn’t a wasteful pursuit nor is it beyond the reach of companies that truly value the workforce. 
 
Frank Angear is general manager at the British Safety Industry Federation.

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