Professionals associated with waste and recycling industry safety took a victory lap after work-related fatalities reached historic lows in 2021. Unfortunately, the number of deaths and illnesses spiked one year later due, in part, to a stunning lack of safety training and access to waste worker protective clothing. Recent studies indicate that illnesses and fatalities will only increase unless employers invest in personal protective equipment (PPE) and disposable clothing inventories.
How are Waste and Recycling Workers Put in Harm’s Way?
Data published by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) shows that workers in the waste industry experienced a 65 percent increase in job-related deaths in 2022. The SWANA report notes that most fatalities were largely due to employees getting crushed by heavy-duty trucks and machinery. Most of the deaths occurred during trash and recycling collection.
While this information highlights a failure to know or follow proper safety procedures, what wasn’t evident in the study was exposure to toxins and/or biohazards. It appears many are grossly ill-equipped with the recycling worker PPE they require. These are ways everyday people are put at risk as waste and recycling industry safety falls short:
- Breathing in airborne pathogens
- Skin contact with blood, urine, feces, and other biohazards
- Contagions penetrating the bloodstream through open cuts or lacerations
- Toxins splattering into eyes, ears, nose, or mouths
- Used needles puncturing the skin during collection and processing
Companies that provide waste worker protective clothing often fail to stockpile items that address biohazards and toxic waste. Waste management studies show that companies were primarily focused on issuing reflective vests, hard hats, and other recycling worker PPE designed to reduce injury from falls, impacts, or lack of visibility. Few workers had undergone training for infectious disease exposure or had access to waste worker protective clothing.
Waste Industry Personnel Sustain High Rates of Job-Related Illnesses
A joint study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and Texas A&M University revealed that workers in the waste and recycling industry remain at heightened risk. When asked about job-related exposure to pathogens, more than 70 percent reported a cut or laceration that could expose them to biohazardous materials.
One of the shocking revelations that came out of the study was that only 28 percent of workers polled acknowledged receiving any form of infectious disease training. This inherent lack of workplace safety information resulted in 30 percent of employees not reporting open wounds or lacerations and only 19 percent being concerned about contracting an illness.
According to a research study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, UK waste industry workers also struggle with a significantly higher rate of job-related illnesses. These are common ailments and conditions that adequate waste and recycling worker PPE could prevent:
- Extrinsic Allergic Alveolitis: This lung disorder is the result of routinely inhaling agents such as fungus, dust, bioaerosols, and reactive chemicals, among others.
- Gastrointestinal Disease: Common disorders include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, heartburn, colon cancer, and hemorrhoids, among others.
- Heavy Metal Poisoning: Handling products that contain lead, arsenic, zinc, copper, or cadmium, among others, may result in waste workers experiencing confusion, abdominal pain, anemia, liver damage, and fluid buildup in the lungs.
- Lead Poisoning: Exposure to lead materials in waste and recycling occupations may result in brain and central nervous system dysfunction, convulsions, or death.
- Mercury Poisoning: Exposure to toxins in fluorescent lights may result in memory loss, anxiety, irritability, tremors, and numbness of the extremities.
- Occupational Asthma: Airways and lungs swell due to repeated exposure to hazardous airborne particulates found in the workplace.
Recent in-depth reporting by The Guardian highlighted the growing health problem driven by plastic. The global plastics industry has surged from 200 metric tons annually in 2002 to more than 390 metric tons in 2021. Approximately half of all plastic products are designed for single uses and quickly find their way into recycling bins.
The Guardian news report indicates that people living near recycling plants experience higher-than-normal rates of premature birth, asthma, leukemia, heart disease, and lung cancer, among others. Waste and recycling workers come into direct contact with plastics and other health hazards daily.
How are Waste and Recycling Workers Put in Harm’s Way?
Although the residential and commercial waste collection sector continues to move toward hands-off automation, workers are still tasked with handling potentially dangerous materials. For instance, the garbage truck operators who mechanically hoist trash and recycling bins for collection often deal with spillage.
When bins fracture, overflow or the operator simply misses the mark, these workers typically get out of the truck and hand-collect items. At this juncture, wearing waste and recycling worker PPE is imperative. Unfortunately, crew members lack access or shrug off the risk in this and situations such as the following:
- Pick up trash and recycling bins
- Dump trash and recycling materials
- Handle solid waste and garbage
- Separating recyclables for processing
- Cleanse waste and recycling trucks, machinery, and equipment
While conducting these and other occupational duties, workers are consistently exposed to airborne hazards, splattering toxins, and skin contact with hazardous agents. They are immersed in a profession that involves persistent health risks. Appropriate waste and recycling industry safety calls for improved use of PPE and employers stockpiling personal protective disposable clothing.
OSHA Trash and Recycling Regulations
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) imposes many general construction sector regulations on the waste and recycling industry. This blanket approach to worker health and safety has proven effective in many cases. Along with standard safety rules, OSHA put forward mandates that deal with trash collection and hazardous materials. A responsible trash and recycling organization typically follows the following guidelines.
Exposure Control Plan
A trash and recycling operation provides a written exposure and waste processing plan. The document is usually made available to workers at every level of the company. The plan outlines the company’s best trash collection, transportation, and processing practices. It may also cover issues such as storage and hazardous materials handling.
Heavy equipment operators must be trained in the proper safety measures required to avoid workplace accidents, injuries, and fatalities. It’s critical to have a plan of action in place when someone gets injured or has an adverse reaction to toxins or biohazards.
Trash Handling Regulations
One of the failings within the industry appears to be adequately segregating waste hazards. OSHA regulations require companies to only allow trained personnel to handle poisonous chemicals, biological waste, and flammables, among others.
These unsafe elements routinely end up in residential and commercial trash bins. Furthermore, OSHA tasks waste and recycling companies with providing PPE and disposable protective clothing to workers who encounter hazardous trash, biting insects, and pathogens (medical waste).
PPE and Waste Worker Protective Clothing
Industry sources widely touted a reduction of 32.9 percent in workplace illnesses in 2021. But the number of people who suffered non-fatal conditions still hovered above 365,000. Waste and recycling ailments recently surged due to only 3-in-10 workers receiving infection prevention training, coupled with a shortage of waste and recycling industry safety PPE and disposable clothing.
- Eye Protection: Workers need face shields or goggles to prevent tainted liquids and airborne particles from getting into their eyes.
- Coveralls: Disposable coveralls can prevent skin contact with splattering biohazards, fecal matter, urine, or chemicals. Splatters significantly contribute to illnesses, particularly when workers have cuts or lacerations.
- Head Coverings: Although headgear may stop materials from clinging to hair and scalps, coveralls with integrated hoods typically provide increased neck protection. Selecting a line of disposable clothing that can be accessorized is a key to improving health and safety precautions.
- Breathable Masks: Although respirators may be impractical when collecting and disposing trash and recyclables, lightweight disposable masks can filter out hazardous agents. Approved breathable masks are an essential type of PPE waste management companies must issue.
- Shoe Protectors: Waste and recycling companies tend to emphasize work boots and steel-toed shoes. While this protects against injury, disposable coverings can prevent contaminants from spreading beyond the work environment. In many cases, allergens and pollutants find their way into the homes of working families via the soles or sides of their shoes.
- Protective Gloves: Waste and recycling worker PPE would be incomplete without protective handwear. Gloves help prevent the transfer of contagions from the hands to other areas of the body.
Improvements in waste and recycling industry safety standards task employers with providing increased training and creating a complete inventory of PPE and disposable clothing. Industry-leading, cost-effective products come with accessories to outfit employees for specific duties in the waste management sector.