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One year ago in the April 2021 edition of Waste Today magazine, Kristen Bell, a partner with Ojai, California-based Krause Bell Group, offered insight into that firm’s conclusion that concentrating on serious injury and fatality (SIF) accidents is an effective workplace safety strategy.

An announcement the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Maryland, made this March indicates the waste services sector has been putting such advice into practice.

Research underlying the report indicates solid waste worker deaths in 2021 in the United States and Canada fell by nearly 50 percent. This, the group says, continues a downward trend that has been in place since 2018.

Zero tolerance

The 28 waste worker fatalities recorded by SWANA in North America in 2021 represent a 46 percent decrease from the 52 fatalities that occurred in 2020.

The prior two decreases were not as dramatic. The North American total went from 59 in 2018 to 53 in 2019 (a drop of 10 percent) and then to 52 in 2020, a 2 percent decrease.

The industry can be pleased that between 2018 and 2021 it slashed the number of annual fatalities by 52.5 percent. At least one of America’s largest waste services firms says it is striving to eliminate such tragic incidents altogether.

Houston-based WM (formerly Waste Management Inc.) says for nearly 20 years it has “engaged employees on safety practices through the Mission to Zero (M2Z), where the ‘Zero’ represents zero tolerance for unsafe actions or conditions.”

The company’s “2021 Sustainability Report,” posted to its website, includes an update on its safety record, which includes data through 2021.

WM says in 2020, as in every previous year dating back to 2005, its employees missed fewer workdays because of injuries compared with the industry average. As its benchmark, WM uses the Days Away, Restricted or Transferred (DART) formula created by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

As with the overall industry, hauling is one of the largest parts of the company’s operations and, therefore, one of the likeliest causes of DART- and OSHA- recordable incidents.

WM says it has “a range of programs to address risks unique to road safety and transportation.” It cites investing in automation as one way to mitigate many risks. “For example, 66 percent of our residential routes rely on automated or semi-automated loading equipment, which reduces the number of times our employees must exit the truck while collecting trash and recyclables,” the company writes in its “2021 Sustainability Report.”

Staying inside the truck’s cab can mitigate the risk of some incidents, but drivers also face hazards when behind the wheel. On that front, WM writes, “Other forms of automation are advanced driver assistance systems, which include collision mitigation, active braking technology that takes over control of our trucks to prevent [a] potential collision when a driver does not react quickly enough and vehicle telematics that communicate any needed repairs to our shops. Beyond the safety benefits, these enhancements lead to greater driver satisfaction and retention.”

The road ahead

WM’s attention to hauling safety appears to be a sound strategy when looking at the fatal incidents tracked by SWANA in its report summarizing 2021.

Per a breakdown of 2021 fatalities offered by SWANA on its website, 18 of the 28 incidents (64 percent) involved a vehicle. Of those 18, seven are described as workers being struck by a waste vehicle, four are described as a “single-vehicle crash,” three more involved a worker being struck by another vehicle, two involved vehicle collisions and two more entailed a worker falling from a truck’s riding step.

Driver safety comes into play beyond protecting operators and their colleagues, SWANA notes. “In addition to worker fatalities, SWANA also tracks events in which a member of the public is killed in a solid waste-related incident,” the association writes.

Beyond the waste sector, highways and roads are becoming more dangerous places in the new decade.

“Unfortunately, as has been widely reported, there was an increase in the overall number of vehicle-related fatalities in 2021, and the solid waste industry was not immune from this trend,” SWANA says.

Describing the industry’s role in overall highway safety in 2021, SWANA says in nearly one-third of fatal incidents known to the group, “the driver of the other vehicle crossed the center line and struck a waste vehicle or ran into a waste vehicle while stopped.”

The danger to all motorists, including truck drivers, often seems to arise from drivers not paying adequate attention to their own journey or to their surroundings. Motorists driving left-of-center and ramming into stopped vehicles “suggests that distraction continues to be a contributor to a considerable number of third-party fatalities,” SWANA says.

WM has placed what it calls “upgraded video event recorders” in its trucks to monitor and critique the safety practices of its fleet’s drivers.

“This technology uses machine vision and artificial intelligence to detect behaviors such as unsafe following distance, immediately alerting drivers of unsafe behavior,” the company says.

Like SWANA, WM also points to additional dangers related to the industry’s daily interaction with the wider driving public. The company describes itself as being a supporter of “Slow Down to Get Around” legislation designed to require drivers to slow down when passing collection trucks.

“To date, 23 states have this law, and the [Arlington, Virginia-based] National Waste & Recycling Association is leading the effort to pass the law nationwide,” according to WM.

In the meantime, the operator of some 19,690 trucks says, “collection drivers must constantly be on the lookout for other drivers, particularly those in a hurry to pass collectors during stops, which is when accidents often occur.”

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