By Mike Williams, Vice President, Strategic Development BlueGreen Alliance, Former SWEEP Steering Committee Member
Sustainability protocols often focus exclusively environmental impacts. So, when we were conceiving the initial SWEEP (Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Protocol) framework, we realized that the standard could not truly achieve sustainability if it only focused on reducing waste, while ignoring social and workplace safety issues that are so crucial to waste industry workers and the communities they serve.
It’s no secret that the waste and recycling industry has a spotty track record when it comes to the health and safety of its workforce. According to the Washington Post, which utilized data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “refuse and recyclable materials collectors” is the 6th deadliest job in the country.
The seminal report from Worksafe, Safe and Sustainable Recycling: Protecting Workers who Protect the Planet, lays out some of the horrific conditions that workers face in waste and recycling jobs and notes that the industry relies too heavily on temporary workers and that “[the industry’s] high injury and fatality rates are a result of unsafe working conditions around heavy machinery and exposure to hazardous items on the sort line, like hypodermic needles, toxic chemicals, and animal carcasses.”
The SWEEP Standard aims to incorporate worker and community safety and health into the overarching protocol. As SWEEP is developed it will be critical to ensure that:
- health and safety records of companies and municipalities are evaluated and included,
- the use of temporary workers is minimized or eliminated,
- strong worker and driver safety training programs are provided,
- ergonomic design elements are incorporated into collection and waste processing systems and
- community education programs are developed.
Not only are worker safety issues vital to making the issue of sustainability actually comprehensive, but to also making the industry better for the people who work in it and who are served by it.