Waste Industry Sees Record Safety for Some; Recyclers Still Vulnerable

By Michael Mignano, Senior Research Analyst, International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Member, SWEEP Steering Committee

Newly released data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that 2016 was one of the safest years in recent memory for the American solid waste and recycling industry as a whole. However, this good news was not shared by all sectors of this multifaceted industry – recycling center workers saw their rates of injury and illness increase from 5.1 per 100 workers in 2015 to 6.0, demonstrating the work left to reach the industry’s most vulnerable populations.

Overall, the waste sector’s rate of injury and illness was 4.0 per 100 workers, falling from 4.5 in 2015 and 5.1 in 2014. The rate of injury and illness for the industrial sector is 3.2 per 100 workers, so while the declining rate of injury is good news, it is still 25% above the average. 

Sanitation workers have particularly dangerous jobs that put them in contact with moving vehicles and machinery, hazardous wastes, and extreme weather conditions. Within the waste sector, recycling center workers experienced the highest rate of injury and illness in the industry – 6.0 per 100 workers – followed by solid waste collection workers (5.2).

The decline in injury and illness rates for collection workers may be attributed to a number of factors including the deployment of newer trucks with more safety features; public awareness campaigns by the industry, such as its “Slow Down to Get Around” campaign, and higher rates of unionization. Studies have routinely demonstrated that “unionized workplaces are safer, have well-trained staff, and experience less turnover than nonunion workplaces.”

Recycling center workers, on the other hand, are often temporary, provided inadequate training, and are the least likely in the industry to be unionized. As we’ve noted before, workers in recycling facilities are “exposed to many serious safety hazards, including being struck-by, caught-in, caught-between, and falling off, various heavy equipment, process equipment, motor vehicles, powered industrial trucks, and refuse handling equipment and conveyors.” In addition, “recent [OSHA] inspection reports and activity has identified the use of temporary workers… [who] are more vulnerable to workplace safety and health hazards as they are often not given adequate safety and health training, equipment, and explanation of their job tasks and duties.”

Furthermore, according to a recent report by PhilaPosh and the Center for Social Justice at Temple University Beasley School of Law, temporary and immigrant workers who do not speak English are especially vulnerable and “may not receive adequate training.” The report reveals that Spanish-speaking temporary workers from Centrix Staffing, which supplied workers to [a major national waste company], were shown a 10-minute safety training video entirely in English, and then “instructed to initial a [the company’s] form, also entirely in English,” before being “deemed prepared for assignment.”

Recycling workers deserve the protections and rights that other workers in the waste industry have long fought for and are proving fruitful. As SWEEP develops standards for recycling operations, we must recognize the unique risks and hazards that recycling workers face and address these head on. No worker should be harmed or killed on the job, and initiatives such as the SWEEP standard will complement other industry efforts to help improve their well-being on the job.

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