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Envisioning a Safer Future: Addressing the Rising Trends of Fatalities in the Waste Management Industry

As the world hurtles towards an increasingly industrialized future, the solid waste industry remains a vital sector in sustaining the urban ecosystem. However, it also remains somewhat marred by occupational hazards. Despite progress in reducing these hazards, refuse and recyclable materials collector has only moved from the fifth deadliest occupation in the U.S. to the seventh[1].

In a concerted effort to enhance safety within the waste and recycling industry, industry leaders have furthered measures to reduce accidents, injuries, and fatalities, but acknowledge the continuous nature of this task. Following a peak in fatalities in 2003, there was a substantial decline of over half by 2007. 

Despite this progress, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows a recent upward trend in fatalities. The years 2013 and 2014 saw a minor decrease in fatalities from 33 to 27, but an increase in the rate of fatalities per 100,000 workers from 33 to 35.8. A steady figure of 33 fatalities was reported in 2016 and 2017, with the fatality rate slightly fluctuating. Unfortunately, 2018 witnessed a spike in fatalities to 61, and the fatality rate surged to 44.3 per 100,000 workers[2]. After a dramatic decrease in fatalities in 2021, 2022 resulted in a nearly 65 percent increase[3].

These alarming trends aren’t just numbers. They represent lost lives and shattered families, underscoring the urgent need to delve deeper into the factors contributing to these tragic incidents. Currently, there are gaps in our knowledge that may unveil correlations and causative factors related to injuries and fatalities that could lead to enhancements in practices that enhance safety. The available data predominantly focuses on vehicular fatalities, while causation factors and other sources of injuries remain understudied. A more comprehensive analysis of historical injuries and fatalities would be an essential tool to guide the development of best safety practices and technologies.

The Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), in collaboration with the National Waste & Recycling Association, will be launching a project that aims to address these issues. The study aims to use BLS, Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), state workers compensation data, and other resources to identify overall trends in the industry over time as well as develop a database of fatal injuries over the past two decades, specifically focusing on waste collection vehicles and non-road mobile equipment at waste processing facilities. Additionally, it aims to highlight the contributing factors leading to these injuries and explore other variables that may be relevant.

A comparative analysis with other high-risk industries, such as mining and trucking, will also be conducted. This comparison can serve to identify safety protocols, equipment, and policies that may be successfully implemented in the solid waste management industry. Another key focus area will be how injuries have shifted and continue to shift due to changes in technology. EREF conducted a 2012 study investigating the impacts of technology advances on injuries in the waste industry. Findings from Ergonomic & Environmental Study of Solid Waste Collection revealed automated and semi-automated waste collection vehicles significantly reduced musculoskeletal injuries compared to manual methods. With increased automation, strain-related injuries may decrease, shifting the industry’s injury profile. The study further suggested task modifications, regular health surveillance, and ergonomic training could help ensure safety alongside technological progression, further changing the nature of injuries in this sector.

In the end, EREF’s research continues to advance and make solid waste management safer by identifying data gaps that might be hindering the industry’s understanding and, consequently, its ability to prevent these fatalities and injuries. Through this work, EREF envisions fostering a safer environment for the oft unsung heroes of urban life, those working tirelessly in the waste management sector.

By EREF Staff

[1] https://www.wastedive.com/news/waste-collection-safety-record-improvement-still-7th-deadliest-industry-osha-bls/638942/#:~:text=Refuse%20and%20recyclable%20material%20collector,U.S.%20Bureau%20of%20Labor%20Statistics.

[2] https://wasterecycling.org/safety-at-nwra/

[3] https://swana.org/news/swana-news-archive/article/2023/03/06/swana-reports-increase-in-2022-worker-fatalities

About EREF

EREF is a 501(c)3 class charity that advances scientific research and creates educational pathways that enable innovation in sustainable waste management practices. For complete information on EREF-funded research, its scholarship program, and how to donate to this great cause, visit erefdn.org.

Media Contact:

Stephen Aber
Communications Manager
Email: saber@erefdn.org