By David Biderman, Executive Director & CEO of
The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA)
When I tell people who are not in the solid waste industry that refuse and recycling collection is the 5th most deadly job in the United States, they are almost always amazed. The public doesn’t realize that thousands of men and women are putting their lives on the line each day to take care of their garbage.
But to those who work the routes or send employees out each day, the dangers of the job are far too real. In 2016 alone, SWANA recorded 46 worker fatalities in the US, half of which were drivers and helpers out collecting garbage. It is simply unacceptable to have so many people die on the job. These are parents, grandparents, spouses, sons and daughters who are not coming home to their families at the end of the day.
Once we acknowledge the need for change in the waste industry, we must then figure out the best path forward. Here at SWANA we have developed a number of valuable resources to educate people in the industry, including our 5 to Stay Alive Safety Tips series, Backing Best Management Practices Guide, and many other materials on our Safety Matters website. But developing these materials is only a starting point.
Safety training must be put into the hands of those who need it most, and in our industry, it is the small haulers who work in towns and cities across the country. Their workers are suffering a disproportionate rate of injuries and fatalities every year, and unfortunately, these are often the hardest people to get safety information to. By partnering with businesses such as PRECO Electronics, SWANA is able to extend our reach and provide tools to build a safety culture in every organization, no matter the size. Nothing we do is more important.
While creating a culture of safety among employers and employees will go a long way to improving the fatality and injury rate in this industry, educating the public is just as important. To this end, the national Slow Down to Get Around (SDTGA) program is invaluable. This awareness campaign reminds drivers to be more careful when near waste and recycling collection vehicles through decals on trucks, ads and local events. Being struck by a motorist is a leading cause of death for waste and recycling collection employees, and with proper awareness, it is completely preventable.
But SDTGA is more than just education. It is also a campaign to pass legislation that requires motorists to slow down or move over when passing waste and recycling vehicles. In April 2017, New Jersey and Iowa joined a growing list of fifteen states that have passed laws to help protect solid waste workers during collection, and several others are considering it. This puts legal force behind the message that collection vehicles, and the workers around them, should be treated with the same caution as an ambulance or construction zone.
As of mid-April, at least 11 solid waste employees have died on the job in 2017. Having nearly a fatality per week has become far too common in this industry. It’s time to bring together technology, education, legislation and outreach to move solid waste collection out of the list of top 5 most dangerous jobs.
For more information about the SWANA safety program, go to SWANA.org/safety.