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Improved safety is something everyone in the waste sector strives for, but successfully implementing site-specific protocols that generate results is easier said than done. Thanks to the confluence of heavy machinery and a mix of professional hauler and residential customers, landfills can be especially precarious places to navigate.

At Blue Ridge Services, a solid waste consulting firm based in Mariposa, California, Kasem Cornelius, an operations consultant and manager of the company’s safety division, and Jason Todaro, an operations consultant and manager of its landfill division, work with operators to help assess, and ultimately improve, safety practices at landfills.

According to Cornelius and Todaro, a few overarching best practices can help reduce the number of accidents and foster an improved safety culture at waste dump sites.

A comprehensive safety program

Although it may seem obvious, having a comprehensive plan in place is the cornerstone of improving landfill safety, but many sites simply haven’t taken the time to prioritize putting these protocols on paper.

According to Cornelius, Blue Ridge Services has conducted a number of polls over the last several years during the company’s webinars and training sessions, and roughly 90 percent of respondents indicate they don’t have the fundamental elements of a safety plan in place. He says there are five main facets of comprehensive safety plans that operators should be mindful of.

“Landfill operators need to have an injury and illness prevention program (IIPP), a health and safety plan (HASP), standard operating procedures for how things are done, and then a training program to train the employees on all these things. Finally, you ultimately need to have a program that tracks and reviews all safety-related issues being undertaken at a site. That tracking and review helps to close the loop because it allows operators to see what actions they’ve taken, but it also allows for tracking so companies get a read on how they are actually doing, and it lets them know if they need to change their approach,” Cornelius says.

In addition to sites that have no program at all, Cornelius notes that many landfill operators may have protocols in place, but they are outdated or not properly communicated to staff.

“I wish that I was joking, but I still see a lot of safety plans that are decades old and written on a typewriter,” Cornelius says. “Many are older than me and have spiderwebs in the binder. I literally pull it off the shelf that way. You have to make sure these are updated and frequently referenced if you want them to be effective.”

Identify common hazards

Enforcing safety is important throughout a landfill site, but observing best practices is especially important in the areas where the most incidents take place.

“In our travels, we find that the tipping area of the landfill is usually one of the most dangerous zones. The tipping pad and overall spotter safety—if the landfill is large enough to need a spotter—are probably the areas where there is the most room for improvement. This is where we really find a lot of vehicle and equipment proximity issues that need to be corrected,” Todaro says.

Todaro says that Blue Ridge Services works with its medium-sized and larger landfill customers to teach an optimized process called a typewriter tipping pattern. He notes that through this process, the spotter determines where the next vehicle is going to go in a manner that they have the heavy equipment pushing off the tipping pad as far away from the customers as possible.

Todaro says beyond this training, landfills (especially larger sites) can benefit from having a spotter for customers to rely on for direction. This person can navigate traffic and orchestrate activity on the tipping floor to keep individuals out of harm’s way.

Customers, especially residents, should also be singled out with targeted training and communication initiatives, Todaro says. Often, these customers aren’t familiar with landfill operations and don’t know what is expected of them, leading to a higher degree of risk. Actively engaging them on the topic of safety, according to Todaro, can help train customers on how to navigate a site and avoid risky situations.

“We see oftentimes the customers aren’t receiving any type of training,” he says. “And something that we’ve identified in the industry specific to landfills is the need to address the public and the customers and educate them on where they should be and where they shouldn’t be. And one of the ways at Blue Ridge Services that we’ve been doing that recently is developing site-specific customer safety videos to really show the public what’s expected of them from a safety standpoint at specific landfills. We really walk them through the process, even going as far as detailing how the tipping pattern works on the active tipping face and showing the customer how that process works and what’s expected of them at the unique location they’re at. If the landfill staff is following a plan and following the protocols that we establish, the next step is getting the customers to do the same.”

Additionally, Blue Ridge Services instructs its clients to think about implementing a safety vest program for its public customers that requires any customer who gets out of their vehicle to have a safety vest on.

“This protects them not only from the heavy equipment that’s near the face, but even from other customers. At Blue Ridge Services, we have a lot of photos and videos of customers getting way too close to each other or walking around their vehicles where it may be difficult to see them. Then, you’ll see this other public customer nearby trying to back their trailer up that they only use a couple times a year into a slot. It’s not a recipe for safety. Just simply having the safety vest program does a lot to make customers more visible. It also creates a safety culture amongst your customers, and it gets them involved in knowing that this is a potentially hazardous site and they need to be safe,” Cornelius says.

Make safety a priority

Cornelius says the way management emphasizes safe practices is what separates the safest companies from those more prone to accidents.

“The ones who are really operating safe sites go beyond simply checking the boxes of those minimum OSHA requirements,” he says. “Because the truth is, OSHA requirements are essential, but they don’t say a lot about landfill operations—there is no landfill section in the OSHA regulations. So those who truly want to be safe implement additional planning and procedures that address the things that their workers are actually doing. They really get operation-specific.”

The other differentiating factor that helps distinguish the safest landfills are those that have what Cornelius calls “safety champions” on the staff. He says these individuals are ideally in a management position and constantly work to reinforce a culture of awareness on-site.

“There are plenty of sites out there that might have plans or procedures that check a box, but it’s about more than just having a book on the shelf about it. There needs to be someone in the operation who really wants to make that change and trains employees on best practices. When we work with operations that have a safety champion, there is a very clear difference. They are much safer operations,” Cornelius says.

He says whether it’s through regular safety-specific meetings or brief “tailgate talks” with crews before the start of the day, an emphasis on constantly improving and learning from mistakes is critical.

Coming full circle, Todaro says that having a third-party trainer come in to periodically fine-tune safety processes can help improve a landfill crew’s behavior, but it is just as important to formally document this information to institute lasting change.

“On-site training is critical. While a lot of this might be about operational processes, such as training a landfill spotter on how to execute their tasks on a daily basis or training equipment operators on how to construct a cell efficiently, everything comes back to safety. Everything has a safety element to it. But any training you’re going to do is going to be most efficient when it’s coming back to, or tying in with, a site’s safety plans and documents that are in place. A trainer can go on-site and say, ‘OK, this is how you should do it,’ but if there’s not a plan in place or a written standard operating procedure in place to really follow through, that training is meaningful, but it’s not as meaningful as if there’s a plan in place you can reference and fall back on,” Todaro says.

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