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Clocking into work doesn’t mean just another day at the office for professionals in the waste industry.

Whether employees are working in recycling facilities, landfills or out on the streets performing collections, waste management professionals have a significantly higher rate of injury than those in most other occupations.

According to the 2018 Employer-Reported Injury and Illness Report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in November of last year, waste collectors had almost twice the number of on-the-job incidents as the average worker. While injuries and illnesses reported by private industry employers occurred at a rate of 2.8 cases per 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers in 2018, the rate for general waste collection workers increased from 5.0 cases per 100 employees in 2017 to 5.5 cases per 100 employees in 2018. The general waste collection rate mirrored that seen in solid waste collection professions. On a more positive note, material recovery facility workers saw a significant injury rate decrease from 9.8 to 4.9 cases per 100 employees in 2018, and injury rates for solid waste landfill workers decreased from 5.3 to 3.9 per 100 employees; however, these rates were still elevated compared to other professions.

In an effort to help improve these metrics, Waste Management set out to devise a plan that could help keep workers throughout the greater Portland, Oregon area better protected.

Devising a program

Bryan Erickson, director of business development at ADAPT Training, says that he received a call from Waste Management’s Pacific Northwest Division Safety Manager Jerry Ginter in April 2017. ADAPT is a Beaverton, Oregon-based company that specializes in physical therapy, massage, fitness and athletic training.

Ginter, who had previously worked as a safety manager at UPS, saw how his former employer’s Industrial Athlete training program helped reduce stresses and strains on company drivers. The program, which was developed in the early 2000s, focuses on warm-up exercises and stretches completed prior to, during and after work. Seeing the parallels between the everyday rigors of the two industries, Ginter asked Erickson if he could help create an Industrial Athlete program for the company’s workers to improve employee wellbeing and prevent repetitive use injuries.

Erickson says Waste Management was specifically looking to improve employee wellness, durability, retention and enjoyment by reducing the number of soft tissue injuries suffered on the job. Not only was the goal to benefit employees personally, Ginter thought instituting an Industrial Athlete program could have a beneficial impact for the business relating to things like worker’s comp claims; recordable injuries; and days away, restricted or transferred (DART) frequency.

“I really have to give a lot of credit to Jerry Ginter. He noticed that in the waste industry, they oftentimes have a full- or part-time physical therapist or athletic trainer taking care of the injuries after they happen. So, his thought process was, ‘What if I brought in a trainer that can work on the durability of the drivers and workers before they get hurt or injured as opposed to focusing on the injury once it happens?’” Erickson says. “I was excited because I’m from the training world and thought we could help. We met over coffee and I told him I had this great 15-minute program where, if everyone goes through the exercises that we prescribed, they’re going to feel so much better and the injury rates will go down. He looked at it and was impressed. He said, ‘This program looks great, now what can you do between two and five minutes?’ So, we had to go back to the drawing board.”

After performing in-depth site and work environment evaluations with Waste Management, Erickson was able to devise a “tune up” routine that workers could perform in only a few minutes throughout the day. The movements are uniquely structured for those with different job functions, but mainly target common ailments.

Erickson says that the most common issues in the neck, upper back, shoulder and arm are rooted in lack of range of motion of the shoulder blade. The lower back, hip, knee and ankle injuries are similar to the upper body injuries as they have a single root: lack of independent range of motion of the hips.

According to Erickson, the sequence of movements ADAPT proscribes are meant to be performed two to five times per day and grouped into three stages: shift preparation, reset and end of shift.

  • The shift preparation movements may take three to five minutes before work begins and are meant to set the body up to function properly throughout the day.
  • The reset movements may take one to two minutes and can be done one to three times a day during work. This sequence is meant to help workers quickly readjust their bodies while out in the field.
  • The end-of-shift movements may take two to three minutes at the end of the workday and are devised to undo any uneven muscular fatigue experienced throughout the day.

ADAPT uses a combination of on-site resources and online programs to help improve the wellness of Waste Management employees at three landfills, a recycling facility and a chemical waste facility in the greater Portland area. Job functions of Waste Management employees participating in the program include collection, post collection, mechanics and office support staff.

Depending on the location, goal and current phase of implementation, ADAPT’s services range from certified personal trainers working on-site three or four times per week to having a trainer come out for a reinforcement education session once per month. ADAPT also trains what Erickson calls “client champions” to spearhead ADAPT’s Durability Program and Corrective Exercise Program between visits.

ADAPT is also in the process of creating an online platform where Waste Management employees can access tools, resources and schedule in-person training sessions, making it easier for remote facilities to utilize ADAPT’s program, get real-time feedback and build consistent routines.

Seeing the results

In the three years since Erickson started developing the Industrial Athlete program for Waste Management, the participating locations have seen marked improvement. According to Ginter, the company reduced its Total Recordable Incident Rate by 37.6 percent to 3.71, achieved a similar reduction in DART frequency, saw a 35.5 percent decrease in area worker’s compensation allocations and decreased its severe injuries in 2018. In 2019, the company’s Total Recordable Incident Rate dropped another 26.7 percent to 2.72.

Beyond the tangible benefits, Ginter says that employees have reported an overall improvement in quality of life thanks to participation in the program, including some who have reported being pain free or being able to be active with their families for the first time in years.

“While it would be impossible to associate this reduction only to our use of [ADAPT’s] services, there is a direct relationship,” Ginter says. “Many [of our team] have sought advice from ADAPT trainers for soft tissue and minor soreness issues. Being subject matter experts, they have kept our Industrial Athletes in the game and escalated full recovery to just days, not weeks or longer.”

The program has been so successful for Waste Management, they signed a three-year extension with ADAPT in 2019 with the objective of increasing participation rates throughout the area.

Erickson says that although the program is in its infancy in the waste sector, he hopes the positive results Waste Management has seen inspire other companies to take action to help improve the health and livelihood of workers.

He summarizes the importance of preventative care in a way many dealing with waste fleets can appreciate.

“If you’re driving a company vehicle and a check engine light comes on, you know you need to bring it into the mechanic so they can use their expertise to take care of whatever the issue is,” Erickson says. “That light might just be a warning, but it helps prevent something catastrophic from occurring down the road. It’s the same idea with your body. If you have aches and pains, little muscle tensions that aren’t necessarily injuries but are bothersome, if you don’t address them up front then there’s a higher potential for something drastic happening to the human body. That’s why the program is so important.”

The author is the editor of Waste Today and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.