The National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA), Arlington, Virginia, recently announced that Kirk Sander has been named vice president of safety and standards for the organization. Previously, Sander served as chief of staff to David Michaels, the former assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Most recently, he worked in the government relations department of the National Safety Council, where he focused on road safety and other areas of national importance.

Waste Today talked to Sander about his new role and about what can be done to help bring about change in the field.

Waste Today (WT): What are some of the tasks you’re going to be focused on as VP of safety and standards?

Kirk Sander (KS): My job is to understand the industry and see how we can get the 31 industry fatalities that the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded in 2016 to 0. At 31 deaths, we still have a long way to go, and we’re at a point where we need to look as broadly as we can to figure out ways to get better training and techniques for making lasting change. I want every one of our workers to come home each day, and I am going to use the lens of, “Can this help someone come home safely?” as a barometer for everything we do.

WT: What are some of the biggest obstacles you see that stand in the way of improving these safety numbers?

KS: Before we can really understand the answer to that question, we need to have the right data. We need to understand exactly where these injuries and accidents are occurring and how they’re occurring before we can correct how we operate. Once we have this information, we can formulate a plan on where we focus our efforts. Is it in collection, is it in the material recovery facilities, etc.? Once we understand this, we can get our messaging out to the industry, the public, lawmakers, regulatory agencies and other sectors to make change possible. We’re currently looking at ways to gather this data so we can implement a proactive safety management system that works and sets an industry-wide standard.

WT: How can the industry do a better job of reaching the public?

KS: That’s one of the biggest issues. The early conversations I’ve had have shown that a lot of the fatalities that we deal with stem from pedestrian vehicles crossing the median or hitting waste collection workers loading a truck, etc. So, the question of how to engage the general public is a major one. We have to work with regulatory agencies and establish coalitions similar to how the National Safety Council instituted the Click It or Ticket campaign that got peoples’ attention. The general public has to start to behave in a way where checking Twitter while behind the wheel isn’t as important as protecting lives on the road.

WT: What are some things you’ve learned in your roles at the National Safety Council and OSHA that you’re bringing with you to NWRA?

KS: Of course it comes down to reaching employees that work in the field, but it’s also about getting everyone to understand that we’re not working in a closed-loop environment. In a construction setting, for example, you’re restricted normally to just workers laboring on-site. In waste, there are a lot more outsiders influencing what you do. We have to understand that we’re just one part of this larger system. It’s going to take reaching every segment of the market to effect change.

WT: What are some things NWRA can help do to promote better safety?

KS: It’s all about getting out there and engaging with traditional and nontraditional partners to try to benefit our industry. Do we look at some best practices learned from athlete recovery innovations to see how we can better protect collection workers lifting heavy bags and other refuse all day? How do we better engage with Health and Human Services (HHS) to find better ways of needle disposal? How do we engage with vehicle manufacturers to help eliminate some of the on-the-road distractions that are causing drivers to tune out? All these kinds of things need to be examined, and we have to look for new solutions and partners to bring about these changes.

I’m optimistic about bringing about these changes in house, but I’m more skeptical of being able to change how the public behaves. That scares me, and unfortunately, I think it’s going to take more accidents and fatalities for people to realize that something needs to change when it comes to on-road safety. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m afraid it’s going to take something major to change the way people operate behind the wheel.

The author is the editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at