Sanitation Worker Safety

How You Can Help Your Sanitation Worker Stay Safe

Garbage and recycling trucks are just a part of living in many parts of the country. From business parks to neighborhoods, we’ve all seen the sanitation trucks on the road– they’re a pretty common sight. Also common, though not as widely seen, are the on-the-job injuries to sanitation workers. While some injuries are caused by improper equipment, bad training, forgetfulness, and more, an alarming number of injuries are caused by the general public’s carelessness.

According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, seven sanitation workers were killed in the first 10 days of 2018. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that refuse and recyclable material collectors have the fifth-highest work injury rate among civilian occupations in 2016. Sanitation workers faced fatal work injuries at a rate of nearly 10 times higher than workers in other industries.

Sprains, strains and other injuries are also common in sanitation workers as they jump on and off trucks, handle heavy loads, deal with unruly refuse and improperly packed cans. They also face exposure to potentially dangerous materials hiding in dumpsters and trash cans.

While OSHA policies don’t necessarily cover just sanitation workers, the Safety Standards for Mobile Refuse Collection has published their own set of safety standards. In their standards, sanitation workers must:

  • Ride only in the vehicle’s cab or on steps specifically designed for riding
  • Remain inside the cab until the vehicle comes to a stop
  • Stay inside the cab if the vehicle is in reverse, going over 10 miles per hour or traveling further than 0.2 miles.
  • Ensure that no one is riding in the loading sills or hoppers

But the onus isn’t just on the sanitation workers, it’s important that the general public also helps our sanitation workers stay safe on the job. How can the public help?

Slow Down

There’s been a recent uptick in accidents from distracted drivers crashing into parked sanitation trucks. All too often, people view the parked trucks as an obstacle to drive quickly around; however, this is a huge safety concern.

State legislatures are also working to keep sanitation workers safe. In 2009, Michigan enacted the “Slow Down to Get Around” law, drawing its name from a campaign from the National Waste & Recycling Association. This law requires drivers to drive below the posted speed limit and avoid distractions when passing stationary waste collection vehicles. Lawmakers in 15 other states followed with varying details, though they all have the same goal: protect our sanitation workers.

Watch What You Throw Away

While the majority of harm comes to sanitation workers from drivers, there are things in your garbage that can also cause harm when improperly disposed of. You can wrap your broken glass in newspaper, tuck the shards inside of a paper bag or cardboard box first, to keep their hands from becoming bloody. If you have a large piece of broken glass, such as a mirror, placing tape over the broken edges can keep the sharp edges from injuring anyone. Placing tape across mirrors and windows can help keep the broken material contained, as well.

Also, think twice before throwing away chemicals; entire trucks have caught on fire after chance chemical reactions in the back. The Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA, classifies some everyday household goods as “Household Hazardous Waste”, or HHW. Paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, pesticides and more can contain hazardous ingredients and require special care when you dispose of them. The best way to decide how to handle these HHWs is to read the product labels for disposal directions or check with your local environmental, health or solid waste agency for more information of HHW disposal in your area.

Things to avoid tossing into the trash include:

  • Motor oil- the only legal way to dispose of motor oil is to place it in a clean plastic container with a tight lid and bring it to a location such as a recycling center, car service station, or automotive store
  • Electronics- electronic waste, or e-waste, in general contains heavy metals such as cadmium and lead and is responsible for as much as 70 percent of the heavy metals in landfills
  • Paint- oil-based paints, coatings, stains, varnishes and removals qualify as HHW because they contain chemicals that can be harmful to humans, animals and the environment
  • Batteries- rechargeable batteries contain heavy metals and should be taken to a participating collection point, alkaline and zinc carbon batteries should be dropped off at an HHW center, and automotive batteries are illegal to discard in your garbage bin so retailers are required to take the old battery
  • Light bulbs- All fluorescent bulbs should be taken to an HHW center, CFLs can be dropped at any Home Depot or Ikea store.
  • Smoke detectors- different types of smoke detectors need different disposal methods, Ionization chamber smoke detectors (ICSDs) contain a small amount of ionizing radiation, which makes them particularly tricky to dispose of
  • Mercury thermometers- these are pretty old school, but some still use them today, mercury should never go into the garbage for the safety of sanitation workers and the environment
  • Tires- there are steel belts inside tires that can puncture the liners in landfills and cause ground contamination

Working in waste management is a thankless job– and sometimes even a dangerous one. In addition to worrying about the threats the machines present to them, they also have to be concerned with the general public’s attentiveness and awareness. But, if we all work together, we can make waste management a safer profession.


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