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Landfills are some of the harshest applications in which equipment and people work. Yet, even with the challenges posed by the landfill, it is possible to create a safe working environment to protect these valued assets. When it comes to job site safety, no amount of equipment technology or advanced machine design can replace caution and good safety practices.

The primary contributors to working safely at the landfill are awareness, proper training and attention to detail on the part of owners and team members. Landfill operators must keep safety a priority and an ongoing part of the organization’s culture.

Here are 10 tips to advance safe operating practices at the landfill:

1. Establish emergency plans and communicate to employees

As part of an organization’s safe daily operations, operators must develop contingency plans and share these plans with the entire team. Teams helping perform “face” operations need to maintain constant communication with each other. Operators changing machines on lunch breaks or shift breaks need to discuss machine condition and working hazards with the replacement personnel. The bottom line is that regardless of function, ongoing communication is key to maintaining safe operations.

2. Use proper personal protective equipment (PPE)

Safe landfill work requires training, knowledge and experience in operations and techniques. Additionally, operators must understand what PPE is necessary before starting a job and why. Although often taken for granted, PPE is meant to protect workers and is necessary for even the most fundamental tasks at a landfill.

Hard hats, reflective safety vests, leather gloves and protective footwear are examples of common PPE. Additionally, it is important to wear sufficient clothing to minimize skin exposure, especially for those who have direct contact with waste, leachate or hazardous materials. Safety glasses and hearing protection should also be worn, as they reduce the risk of eye injuries and hearing loss.

Workers should be encouraged to consult their job site safety coordinator or foreman with PPE questions or needs.

3. Wear your seatbelt

Seat belts do much more than simply protect the operator in the event of a collision. They also keep operators inside the cab’s rollover protection structure (ROPS). Workers should always check seat belt and mounting hardware condition before operating the machine. During the compaction process, landfill terrain is uneven and unstable, increasing the risk of machine rollovers. Staying buckled up all during operations keeps workers in the ROPS and safe.

4. Practice fire prevention safety

Fires can pose a significant risk on landfill job sites, which is why everyone is responsible for being aware of and reporting fires in the landfill and on machines. Workers should also always report any other potential fire hazards they may see. To minimize risk, workers should check incoming loads for signs of fire, such as smoke, odors or flames. Ensure fire extinguishers are available on each piece of equipment and all operators are properly trained to use these devices.

In addition, operators should be sure to select the appropriate type of fire extinguisher for the equipment. Fire extinguishers should be selected based on the classes of anticipated fires and the degree of hazard that would affect their use. If a fire occurs within the disposal area, workers should be careful to immediately remove the waste even after the fire has been extinguished since this waste can continue to smolder, causing sparks to be spread throughout the landfill area. In this event, sparks could land on the machine or be pulled into the machine by the cooling fan. Emergency Response Plans should be on file with the local fire department and emergency medical responders so they can familiarize themselves with the site and emergency protocols.

5. Be aware. Know your surroundings

Many accidents occur when ground personnel and equipment operators fail to follow the basic safety procedures at the landfill. Visibility is crucial when working in a landfill. Landfill employees are responsible for knowing their surroundings, such as traffic flow and machine operations in the work areas. Ground personnel need to have the attitude of “see and be seen” at all times, and visual contact with all traffic and machines is a must. Performing constant visual scans of the work area is necessary, and doing so should be instilled through training with each operator.

6. Perform walkaround inspections

Operators should perform proper walk-around machine inspections a minimum of three times a day, including at the beginning of the shift, at the end of the shift and any time an operator dismounts the machine.

Workers should look for leaks, potential fatigue failures, progressive component failures or major equipment failures. Not only will inspections help to maintain the integrity of the equipment, but they will also help keep the equipment safe for operation.

These inspections allow the operator to check for, and rid the machine of, debris build-up. Built-up debris can serve as potential fuel for a fire. Simply noticing the accumulation of debris is not enough. It is the worker’s duty to maintain the machine’s cleanliness for safe operations. If a worker sees something that is unsafe or that could lead to a safety concern during operation, they should be encouraged to write it down on their daily trip report and notify the supervisor or foreman. Operators should also refer to the specific equipment maintenance manual for guidance on inspection checklists.

7. Use proper mounting/dismounting techniques to avoid slips, trips and falls

Many landfill injuries occur from improper mounting and dismounting practices. The following procedures are recommended when mounting a piece of equipment.

  • Clear the cab and area around you before approaching the machine.
  • Perform the proper walk-around inspection.
  • Mount using three points of contact (two feet/one hand or two hands/one foot).
  • Face the machine and carry nothing in your hands when climbing the machine.

Before dismounting, workers should lower all attachments, shift to neutral and set the parking brake before getting out of the seat. Workers should also perform the proper three-point contact dismount (the same as mounting), and pay attention to the ground to avoid stepping on uneven surfaces. Never jump off a machine or mount/dismount where proper steps, handrails or grab irons are not in place. Be aware of conditions that often lead to slips, such as rain, snow, mud, oily boots, etc. Pay attention when going up and down the steps and when walking anywhere on the machine.

8. Follow Lock Out/Tag Out procedures

Workers should perform proper lock out/tag out procedures according to the company’s policy. Workers should also never remove a lock or tag that is not theirs. Operators should not start or operate a piece of equipment that has a lock or tag on it, and a lock and tag should be placed on machinery when continued operation could lead to a safety concern or serious injury.

9. Conduct operator training

Landfills are some of the harshest environments that people and machines work in. It is imperative that a training plan for each job within the landfill be written out and put into place. Management is responsible for ensuring all employees are trained on the safety and operational aspects of each function they perform.

A copy of the machine’s operation and maintenance manual should be placed in every machine’s cab and each operator should read and be trained on that document. Having a beginners’ training session along with an annual refresher training on all machines and applications will help ensure safe procedures.

10. Commit to safety

Keeping people safe is the most important mission for any job site. Operators should always perform safety and maintenance walkarounds before and after their shift. Landfill managers should also limit machine access to those involved in the operation, training or diagnostics of the machine. Most of all, companies should stress a “people first” mentality, as workers are the most valuable asset.

Rick Zettler is a freelance contributor for Caterpillar Inc. He can be reached at zcomm@mchsi.com.