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The waste and recycling industry has acknowledged for several years what national statistics have borne out: the occurrence of serious injury and fatality (SIF) accidents in the sector is out of proportion to its size.

Trade groups including the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) have created programs and educational materials in attempts to measurably reduce such tragic incidents.

Kristen Bell, a partner with Ojai, California-based Krause Bell Group, says companies like hers and the industry overall may not enjoy complete consensus on how to address the issue. She comments, however, “What we’ve learned through research is that if you want to prevent fatalities—and that’s usually the first goal—that requires a special focus on situations that lead to fatalities and life-altering incidents.”

Words and deeds

As the waste and recycling industry has produced materials and messaging to address workplace safety issues, the word “culture” has been applied generously to the list of factors that can create the needed improvements.

Bell says establishing a strong safety culture is a process that includes everyone—executives, site managers, employees and even customers and vendors.

“What’s not well understood is how each person connects to reducing risk in their organization or creating that culture. That can be difficult for people to understand,” she says.

The industrywide attention to safety has, fortunately, led to more frequent meetings devoted to the topic, says Bell. However, if employees at a facility “have a safety chat in the morning” and that is followed the rest of the day by talk of adhering to schedules and “how quickly can we get this material processed,” that second message is the one that employees will internalize, she says.

“There is a role for every single person in the organization to create a safe workplace,” says Bell. “Everyone is connected to it, even people outside the company.” That being said, executives may be in a position to influence safety in ways they do not always consider, Bell acknowledges.

Bell offers as an example hiring for an operations or facility management position and not asking about the candidate’s safety qualifications or intentions to emphasize safety. “One of the most important decisions an executive or manager can make relative to safety is who they hire—it’s crucial,” says Bell, who indicates Krause Bell has performed pro bono work for ISRI pertaining to its Circle of Safety Excellence program, which recognizes member companies for outstanding commitment to the safety of their employees.

The company that hires a manager who is an excellent safety leader is likely also to be happy with that person’s leadership in general, according to research conducted by Krause Bell. It doesn’t always work the other way around, however.

“The same type of employee who feels safe and supported by his or her leaders also coincides with the type who will put his or her best effort forward, and the business will thrive,” says Bell. She adds, “That’s important. Being reassured that the effort that goes into safety improvement will benefit the business in general is a big deal. [That happens] through culture.”

The profit motive is far from the only one, however, that will cause employees to pay close attention to avoiding SIF accidents.

A clear motive

Awards and other forms of recognition often are part of corporate and organization safety programs, and some choose to reinforce or incentivize this with a financial reward.

When it comes to the recognition aspect, Bell says her company indeed views it as helpful to recognize good safety practices and track records, “especially when people go out of their way to do the right thing.”

As far as financial incentives, Bell says, “They are very, very tricky.” She continues, “You could easily incentivize the wrong behavior, and you shouldn’t have to pay people or bribe people to work safely.”

Rather, Bell says of employees at all levels, “We’re already motivated to protect ourselves and each other. We want to protect people and keep them from being injured. If nothing else, we’re going to keep people whole and alive and not having a life-altering injury.”

With that motivation being essentially intrinsic, Bell says her firm’s experience is that incentives such as gift cards or raffle contents are “not really necessary and can be harmful.”

Budgets and attention may be better off focused on consistent messaging that builds a safety culture from top to bottom. “Every minute of every day is sending a message about safety,” says Bell. “We want to develop great awareness of the impact of our messages on people, and how they’re hearing [these messages].”

For executives and managers, “It means we’re creating culture every time we’re interacting with someone,” Bell continues. “It’s kind of daunting as a leader. The implication is we have immense power, and we may not realize how we’re affecting people.”

Communication within an organization on safety or any other topic is not a one-way street. While company leaders can endorse a safety message, they cannot create a culture alone.

Feedback loop

In the waste and recycling sector, associations including NWRA, SWANA and ISRI all produce and distribute materials made available to member companies and organizations. Posting and distributing such materials, however, may only be a half measure.

“Our experience is [employers] are sending plenty of that material out, but there needs to be more listening,” states Bell.

Her advice to executives and facility operators is to be more in tune with what the company’s workforce is communicating: “Focus more on what you’re hearing from other people; focus on getting messages percolating up from your workforce. It will help improve your safety and your culture.”

The importance of listening extends to daily or weekly safety meetings, says Bell. “You want to have a safety meeting that is a conversation. Ideally, you won’t be waiting until the end for questions. You’d be formatting it as a dialogue.”

Most Krause Bell clients are holding such meetings “every single day and before every big task,” says Bell.

Managers who are seeking out and hearing safety concerns may be more likely to keep the topic in mind during their own workday. The attention to safety may then more easily extend beyond a facility’s workforce and to regular facility visitors.

Says Bell, “Every interaction you have with a delivery driver or a customer is an opportunity to influence them. What do they see at the gate? What do they hear from the person at the [scale house] booth? For a vendor, it can be what is in the contract [that they pay attention to]. Every interaction is a chance to influence.”

Underlying the cultural aspects, Bell says companies need to be keenly aware of just where the SIF risks lie. “A really great place to start is with senior leaders asking the question: How much exposure to SIFs do we have?”

This can be especially crucial when looking from the vantage point of employees “who are just starting out,” says Bell. “On our website, visitors can download a book chapter on that topic.”

Despite efforts to make workplace safety a focus in recent years, national workplace SIF statistics have too often demonstrated the waste and recycling sectors remain a dangerous place to work. Pointing to the oil and gas industry as one example, Bell adds, “The good news is, other industries have paved the way toward better safety; we can apply what we’ve learned.”

The author is a senior editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.