Gaeta Recycling in Paterson, New Jersey, is a licensed fifth-generation solid waste and recycling company that has been serving the needs of local customers since 1935. The family-run operation has grown steadily over time to include a customer base of more than 300,000 residents spanning four counties in addition to its more than 6,000 commercial accounts. Besides offering collection services for its residential and commercial customers, Gaeta owns and operates its own materials recovery facility (MRF) and transfer station.

As the company has expanded, so to has the need to ensure safe operations for its employee base. That’s where Michael Portannese first made his mark on the company when he joined the family business in 2013.

Portannese, who is now the president of Gaeta, got his start in the mechanic shop where he was charged with helping better understand and oversee the day-to-day operations of the business.

“I got the chance to run the shop for the first two years I worked at the company, which was good because I learned a lot about safety, I learned a lot about the fleet, and I learned where a company can really bleed from—the mechanic shop,” Portannese says. “Today, we have a fleet of 124 vehicles. … When you have a fleet of that many vehicles going out, there’re a lot of safety concerns on a daily basis.”

Seeing these concerns firsthand, Portannese soon decided to hire a designated safety officer whose job it was to manage employee training, ethics, safety meetings and related initiatives.

Portannese says that while there were people in the office who would occasionally hold safety meetings and toolbox talks before this appointment, the company never had anyone in charge of making sure safety was prioritized on a daily basis.

“I think if you’re in this industry and you don’t have that technology now, you’re losing value because of the fact that it’s just such an informative product to have in every single one of your vehicles—it’s your eyes and your ears.” –Gaeta Recycling President Michael Portannese

Although the safety officer was in charge of analyzing accidents and training drivers on improving behaviors, the company realized it was operating with insufficient intel as to on-road behaviors. That’s when Portannese says the company made the decision to install drive cameras in all the company’s collection vehicles. After trialing a couple different solutions, the company settled on San Francisco-based Samsara for its fleet technology needs.

“Previously, we didn’t have any cameras in any of the trucks. We ended up adding internal- and external-facing cameras, which were great,” Portannese says. “They were a great training tool. They helped us in a lot of litigation situations where they proved we were innocent and not at fault for various accidents. But they have also been great because they have all different sensors. So, if a truck sways side to side too quickly, or if a driver accelerates too quickly or has hard-braking events, the software shoots an email to the administrator on the account recording the time of the actual occurrence, which is really important for promoting accountability.”

According to Portannese, there was some initial pushback from the company’s drivers who were concerned about being monitored by “Big Brother” after the installation of cameras and sensors in the trucks. However, over time, he notes that the vast majority of incidents where this technology has been utilized come at the benefit of the employees.

Whether the cameras are used to corroborate that a resident forgot to put out their trash or provide an alibi for a driver accused of an accident or damaging property, these solutions can offer irrefutable proof that helps drivers avoid accusations of wrongdoing.

In the last year, Portannese says the company has also outfitted every truck with tablets, which are equipped with AMCS’ Tower software. These tablets allow drivers to take pictures of containers at the push of a button to record overloaded receptacles or those filled with dangerous or foreign materials that might preclude a driver from trying to tip that container. This helps the company avoid things like damaged windshields, spilled loads, and other issues that occur when drivers feel obligated to tip containers they shouldn’t. If customers then complain about missed pickups, Gaeta can email photo evidence of a blocked or incorrectly filled container to help avoid disputes.

Portannese says that outfitting every truck with sophisticated software comes with a cost, but it is a small price to pay for transparency and peace of mind.

“I think if you’re in this industry and you don’t have that technology now, you’re losing value because of the fact that it’s just such an informative product to have in every single one of your vehicles—it’s your eyes and your ears,” he says.

Beyond fleet software, Portannese says a strict tire maintenance program, in addition to investments in lug nut indicators and anti-flat tire sealants for the company’s trucks, has been instrumental in helping the company avoid costly and dangerous blowouts and stranded vehicle situations that previously burdened the company.

Gaeta has also increased the number of supervisors within the company in recent years to help bolster oversight and safe operations. For example, Portannese says that the head supervisor of municipalities for Gaeta now has five supervisors working under him who are in charge of remotely tracking trucks, conducting on-the-road route audits or otherwise checking in with employees. This infrastructure has helped eliminate the onus of safe operation from the shoulders of a single safety officer.

Portannese says rather than foster a sense of alienation within the company’s collection team, bringing additional supervisors on board has helped give a voice to drivers and helpers within the company.

“We’ve made that connection between supervisor and employee where you open up the communication level between your employees,” Portannese says. “Sometimes companies have this dynamic where the drivers don’t want to communicate issues to supervisors because of the fear of being written up or the fear of being told to stay home for a few days. In our industry, the margins are very tight and many are quick to just lay a person off or send someone home unpaid for a week rather than work through the issues and rectify the problems to help build up to a better employee.”

Between fewer accidents, less money allocated to insurance costs and lawsuits, and greater support of the company’s employees, Gaeta’s commitment to safety has helped the New Jersey-based company evolve over the years.

“I think every day we get smarter and we get better,” Portannese says. “I think it’s because of our technology, and I think it’s because where we decide to invest funds and invest in people. I think at our size, we’re not that small mom-and-pop from years ago. We’ve grown astronomically and been able to make a name for ourselves. To do that, you have to invest in certain things, and we chose safety. I think if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

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