The waste management industry might not be the most glamorous sector in the world, but for many of us it remains the ‘fourth emergency service’.
From collecting our weekly household to helping protect the environment by preventing waste from going to landfill, it plays an integral part in modern society.
But like any other sector that involves heavy machinery, physical labour and people working long spells outdoors it is one where accidents can, sometimes fatal, take place.
According to the latest set of annual workplace fatality figures, released by the HSE, there were 12 fatal injuries to waste and recycling workers between April 2017 and March 2018.
That number has gone down from 14 in 2016/17, but as the latest HSE report notes, despite waste management being a relatively small sector in terms of jobs, its annual injury rate over the last five years is 16 times higher (10.26 per 10,000 workers) than the average rate across all sectors (0.45 per 100,000 workers).
And the HSE figures also reveal that four members of the public suffered fatal injuries last year, which were linked to waste and recycling. Although the HSE figures do not list the specific details of each of these accidents, it is thought that several of these people died after falling asleep in bins or skips, which were then tipped into lorries or taken to recycling sites.
“People are placing themselves at serious risk of harm by sleeping or seeking refuge within waste containers,” says Environmental Services Association Policy Analyst, Stephen Freeland.
“If undiscovered during the collection and tipping of the container into the back of a refuse collection vehicle the chances of survival are very slim.
“There are various means in which the industry can help address this issue, such as training of collection crews to check bins prior to uplift or raising awareness of the ‘tell-tale’ signs that someone might have sought refuge inside a container,” adds Mr Freeland.
“Industry guidance is available through the Waste Industry Safety & Health (WISH) Forum on the control procedures which can help increase the chances of discovering people before a container is lifted and tipped into the refuse vehicle.
“While the waste management industry clearly has a role to play, an often-overlooked aspect is the legal responsibilities of businesses themselves – those that produce waste in the first place – who are duty bound to ensure that containers (and waste) are secure, both during storage and upon being presented for collection.
“Secure, locked storage areas should be used by businesses where available but where such facilities are not available, basic housekeeping measures could help reduce the likelihood of people accessing containers. Care should therefore be taken to avoid overloading containers with so much material that it prevents the lid from shutting and being securely locked.”
‘Refuse not Refuge’
The waste management sector has launched several initiatives aimed at tackling the issue of rough sleepers using bins and skips for containers. B&M Waste Services has its ‘Refuse not Refuge’ campaign, which it has been running for several years, while Biffa has worked with charity Homeless Link to promote its StreetLink service, which enables the public to alert local authorities in England and Wales about people sleeping rough in their area.
Speaking to SHP Online, Veolia UK’s Chief Risk and Assurance Officer, Richard Hulland says: “As part of our active risk policy we implement a Sleepsafe campaign to educate our operatives to protect homeless people taking refuge in bins, an issue that is prevalent during the winter. Measures like banging on the side of a bin and looking inside sound straightforward, but it saves lives.
“For a business of our nature, we have an exemplary health and safety record but sadly, incidents still happen – such as earlier this year when a homeless man went undetected in one of our bins. This is why we are always looking at innovative ways to improve our methods and reduce risk. We follow rigorous protocols at all our sites to safeguard our staff and visitors, we work closely with our customers to secure sites against potential hazards and we consult homeless charities and local authorities to ensure we are doing all we can to prevent avoidable incidents wherever possible,” adds Mr Hulland.
But UNISON’s assistant general secretary Christina McAnea argues the waste industry remains “one of the most dangerous parts of the economy in which to work”.
“Over the last five years 39 waste workers have been killed – mostly hit by moving vehicles or other machinery,” she tells SHP Online.
“Injuries are sadly all too common too – only agriculture, construction and manufacturing report more workplace accidents. Refuse, recycling and waste staff slip, fall and trip regularly, are injured by syringes or other needles, or hurt their backs from heavy lifting. Over the last few weeks, working outside in sub-Saharan temperatures in layers of protective clothing will have taken its toll too.”
In terms of working outdoors, particularly in the recent heatwave, ESA’s Stephen Freeland comments that waste and recycling workers are out every day, in all weather, providing essential services to the UK’s homes and businesses.
“Outdoor working in the soaring temperatures experienced across many parts of the UK this summer adds further challenges to an already physically demanding job,” says Mr Freeland.
“Workers can stay safe in the heat by remaining hydrated, wearing appropriate clothing and using sun block. Supervisors should more closely monitor breaks to ensure these are being taken and remain vigilant for signs of heat stress.”
And looking at the recently published HSE figures, Mr Freeland says they consistently point to a higher than average injury rate for the waste and recycling industry.
“The statistics make for sobering reading and serve to show that too many people continue to be killed or harmed by our industry’s activities,” he adds.
“Waste collection activities and workplace transport remain high risk areas and through organisations such as the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum (WISH), ESA has been actively involved in the development of guidance to help eliminate or reduce risk.
“The challenge is to extend the reach of this guidance to help ensure that good practice is shared as widely as possible and that the industry as a whole is working to the same high standards in health and safety. Improvements in health and safety culture and behavioural safety would undoubtedly help this process,” adds Mr Freeland.
To read the full HSE report, click here.
Heather Beach recently spent a couple of days ‘On the bins’ with Biffa, to read her story click here.
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In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.
Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.