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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, waste material collection – specifically of refuse and recycling materials – is the fifth most dangerous job in the country, and incidents involving the transportation of waste are the cause of 40 percent of the injuries and fatalities.

That’s why a myriad of municipalities are turning their attention to the issue of the safety of waste collection workers. One of the more prominent initiatives is the “Slow Down to Get Around” law that was most recently signed into law by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2015.

With this law, Virginia joined several other states that have enacted Slow Down to Get Around legislation including Wisconsin, North Carolina, West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New York and Alabama.

The “Slow Down to Get Around” law says drivers must reduce their speed to at least 10 miles per hour below the posted speed limit and pass at least two feet to the left of any stationary vehicle that is collecting trash or recycling.

As Jeff Wolf, a Los Angeles-based personal injury attorney and partner of the personal injury law firm Heimanson & Wolf LLP, explained, the most significant risk of death or serious bodily injury facing waste and recycling collection employees is the risk of being struck by a driver.

“Slow Down to Get Around laws have now been enacted in more than a dozen states,” Wolf said. “They are designed to ensure that motorists slow down and exercise caution when encountering these workers – but they also make it easier for workers to show a violation of the law when they are injured on the job.”

These laws are meant to protect these workers who are in and out of their vehicles to do their job while drivers are simultaneously rushing to and from work and speeding around town – because this combination is so likely to create dangerous and potentially deadly scenarios, added protection for these circumstances is important.

“If a waste employee is injured by a motorist who fails to yield, that employee can point to the Slow Down To Get Around law to hold the driver responsible for the waste employee’s harm,” Wolf said. “Interestingly, the employee does not need to prove that the driver was negligent. Rather, he or she need only prove that the driver violated the Slow Down to Get Around Statute and the driver will be liable for the employee’s injuries or death. Again, this does make it easier for the employee to make their legal case and get the redress they deserve for their injuries.”

California does not currently have a Slow Down To Get Around law, however, the state’s “Move Over” law requires moving over for specific vehicles, including tow trucks and ambulances, but waste management vehicles are not among those specified.

“It would seem that the states that do include those vehicles are perhaps doing a better job of protecting those workers,” Wolf said.

“My home state of Virginia, recently passed a lane traffic law requiring drivers to reduce speed before passing sanitation trucks,” said Wayne D’Angelo, partner at Kelley Drye & Warren. D’Angelo advises heavily regulated companies and industries on environmental, health, safety and natural resources matters. “Many other states – and local municipalities – are similarly focused on vehicle safety.”

As D’Angelo explained, some companies have incorporated technological developments into their daily vehicle operations. For example, waste trucks have cameras capturing vehicle behavior for ongoing risk evaluation, lifting mechanisms to avoid strain and repetitive motion injuries.

Wolf added that the effective use of technology – alert systems and dash cams– as well as increased security and training of individuals in the field, does seem to have an impact on worker safety for roadside or highway workers generally. Different technology initiatives can result in a safer working environment for waste workers as well.

“Now that it’s getting warmer out, you will see companies and regulators increasing awareness on the signs and symptoms of heat stress, as well as ways to avoid heat-related illnesses,” D’Angelo said.

Michael Benedetto, president and owner of TFC Recycling says that automation of the waste collection process is key to helping curb accidents and injuries in the collection process.

“For curbside recycling and waste collections, automation is important,” Benedetto said. “Some companies in Florida, for example, will drive from stop to stop with drivers on the back of the truck. Injuries are significant for manual collections.”

TFC is headquartered in Chesapeake, Virginia, employs over 350 people and operates more than 180 collection and transfer vehicles. They provide recycling services for over 700,000 households in 6 of Virginia’s largest cities, and more than 4,000 commercial customers in Virginia and North Carolina.

“Two things that are driving the increase in safety measures by companies and municipalities are the desire for safety and the high costs for insurance and claims,” Benedetto said. “TFC is part of a captive insurance program, with about 150 other companies that share risk and are partially self-insured.” A captive insurer is typically an insurance company that is wholly owned and controlled by its insureds; its primary purpose is to insure the risks of its owners, and its insureds benefit from the captive insurer’s underwriting profits.

Additional Measures Taken

Environmental safety issues, as they relate to the waste worker industry, are top of the mind for many companies. Most worker safety regulations don’t vary by company. Rather, regulations related to worker safety can be promulgated on a federal, state and local level. To the extent these regulations vary, the variation is geographic rather than company-specific.  

Indiana is an example of a state that has more proactive rules and requirements for waste management workers. In general, waste management falls under Federal or State OSHA for workplace safety and these standards are typically fairly consistent.

“States with more focus tend to have more resources to help individual companies meet the expectations,” said Rick Fineman, head of risk management at ICW Group. Based in San Diego, ICW Group Insurance Companies is the largest group of privately held insurance companies domiciled in California and represents a group of workers’ compensation, property, and auto insurance carriers.

“Waste or recycling drivers are among the top 10 most dangerous professions in the U.S. per National Safety Council’s Injury Facts,” Fineman said. “Those accidents cost significant resources for increased insurance premiums and other indirect costs. There is also a driver shortage – we’re seeing a trend where keeping the drivers you have is becoming more important to business.”

According to Gregory Cade, principal attorney at Environmental Litigation Group in Birmingham, Alabama, waste management is a vital activity in the context of protecting human health and the environment.

Cade stressed that states are very involved in taking environmental safety measures, but regarding waste management worker safety they’re more focused on minimizing occupational injuries than on protecting workers from bioaerosols, noise, and ultraviolet radiation exposures. California has been one of the leading states on waste worker safety issues.

“It’s a shame the activities that waste management workers perform would expose them to various occupational health risks, and it’s a shame professional health hazards have not yet been adequately assessed,” Cade said. “A state like California, for example, offers initiatives that intend to strengthen EPA and the OSHA type of regulations. The recycling and waste industry pushes to reduce labor and increase mechanization of the processes involved. As human sorting remains an integral part of the process, material recovery facilities (MRFs) employing manual sorters need thorough worker safety regulations.”

Having worked for private industry employers for his entire legal career, D’Angelo said that the number one reason employers prioritize safety is a deep and genuine desire to see their employees safely home at the end of their shift.

“As such, I think compliance assistance and awareness programs can be very effective,” D’Angelo said. “Employers are generally motivated to provide their employees safe working conditions and often all they need is some assistance in identifying and mitigating risks.”

In fact TFC requires a pre-employment physical to insure that they have the appropriate person for each job.

“We want to make sure they are capable of safely doing the job,” Benedetto said. “We also drug test to ensure a drug-free workplace.”

Benedetto and his team at TCF are not alone in their determination to provide a safe working environment, as more industry players believe municipalities and private waste management companies will continue to focus on safety.

“As the cost of accidents rise and the pool of available workers continues to shrink, all worker safety will become a priority for municipalities,” Fineman said. “Waste worker safety should become a priority as it is a leading loss source.”

And while insurance companies, risk mitigators, municipalities and private companies increase their focus on safety, the general public also has a key role to play.

“Municipalities focus on their priorities of their voters,” D’Angelo said. “Nobody wants workers injured on the job, and if voters are observing unsafe operating or working conditions, they will make themselves heard.”

Published in the May 2017 Edition of American Recycler News