Improving safety in the waste & recycling sector

Health and safety

Andrea Lockerbie explores the safety landscape of the waste and recycling sector, and examines the latest HSE statistics and the ongoing efforts to improve safety performance.

Annual statistics released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on the number of fatalities and work-related injuries within the waste and recycling sector generally paint the industry in a bad light compared to other sectors – but why is this and what can be done to improve it?

HSE statistics: a snapshot of the waste & recycling sector

Health and safety

According to the Waste Statistics in Great Britain, 2022 report published by the HSE last November, the average annual number of fatalities between 2017/18 and 2021/22 was five. Statistically speaking, the number of fatalities is small and prone to annual fluctuations.

The report states that waste’s fatal injury rate of 4.61 per 100,000 workers is around 11 times the all-industry rate of 0.41. It is greater than construction at 1.63 and manufacturing at 0.68.

There are commonalities: 37% of deaths between 2017/18 and 2021/22 were classified as “struck by a moving vehicle”. Six deaths in the sector have been recorded since the start of 2023: four involved a vehicle, one was related to an explosion and another a fire.

Each is a tragedy and shows there is more to be done to make sure everyone goes home safe at the end of the day. But just looking at fatality statistics doesn’t show the overall improvements the sector has made.

Chris Jones, chair of the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) forum believes that RIDDOR data on non-fatal injuries or lost-time injuries is a better measure of the overall health and safety performance of the sector – and these indicators show a continuing downward trend for the sector.

Paul Stokes, head of Safety, Health, Environment & Quality (SHEQ) at waste management firm FCC Environment, suggests just RIDDOR data should be used by HSE, as data from the Labour Force Survey, which HSE also uses, is too open to error.

Both say it’s important to consider context when looking at the statistics. Jones says: “Back when WISH started in 2000, the number of fatalities and the number of injuries were an order of magnitude higher.

“The first accident reduction charter that was issued by the Environmental Services Association (ESA) and WISH was in 2004 and since then accident rates have fallen by more than 90%. So, yes, we are still worse than construction and manufacturing – but we were ten times worse in 2004.”

The ESA has presented data from member companies, which make up a third of all those employed in the sector, to show the overall downward trend in reportable RIDDOR injuries. (See graph)

Common hazards and unique challenges in the industry

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An issue for the waste sector is the broad range of activities it covers as well as the type of organisations, from SMEs to national and international private sector firms to local authorities.

Operations span energy-from-waste plants, materials recycling facilities (MRFs) and street sweepers. The working environment can’t be controlled in the same way as other sectors and the risk portfolio is hugely different.

As Sarah Golembiewski, chair of the Local Authority Waste Safety and Health Forum (LAWS) sets out: “The hazards faced by those engaged in the waste and recycling sector are significant and include but are not limited to work with machinery and heavy plant, working in close proximity to moving HGVs, work on the UK’s vast road network including rural roads to speed roads, work with substances hazardous to health and work in a variety of outdoor settings with challenging environmental conditions such as lone working, adverse weather and uneven ground surfaces.”

Jones adds: “If you are collecting refuse, you are out in the streets. You can’t control the environment, you can’t control the weather, and you particularly can’t control the public.”

Sometimes that can affect a person’s behaviour which can then affect a person’s attitude to safety and breaking the rules.

For example, a problem for the industry is when members of the public get annoyed at being held up by refuse collection vehicles (RCVs) and then dangerously undertake RCVs on the pavement, putting workers and the public in danger. A campaign called Driving Recklessly on Pavements, working with the police and councils, was launched some years back to raise awareness about this.

For waste companies with local authority contracts, there is also the pressure of penalty clauses. For example, a local authority client could insist collections are done in adverse weather conditions, and a common penalty clause relates to vehicles having to get to sites, tip, and move off within a short timeframe.

“Sometimes that can affect a person’s behaviour which can then affect a person’s attitude to safety and breaking the rules,” says Stokes.

It is also hard to control the public putting items into their waste bins that they shouldn’t, such as lithium-ion batteries, which can cause fires. “Consequently, it is much more difficult for us to provide levels of control that completely eliminate risk,” Jones explains.

The role of culture and public perception in safety

Health and safety

Culture is another big factor. The industry has spent time on improving safety culture, but Jones says there is a wider issue: “Society doesn’t value refuse collectors, doesn’t think it is an important or dangerous job. If you walk into a petrochemical factory, the average member of the public would behave in a particular way because they are aware that it is a site which has high standards, where safety is important.

“When they go to ‘the tip’ they don’t have that expectation. Steptoe and Son is firmly planted in the cultural lexicon – so [the public] do things, and act in ways which don’t encourage good safety.”

This external perception can mean people joining the sector don’t have safety expectations. Low or minimum wage jobs in the sector mean workers might have second jobs, which also feeds the “job and finish” culture and one where high safety standards are not top of mind.

Society doesn’t value refuse collectors, doesn’t think it is an important or dangerous job.

Earlier this year, WISH issued a position statement on safety in the operation of automatic bin lifting equipment on RCVs, which Jones believes typifies a lot of the issues. If bin lifts were in a workshop, he explains, there would be fencing around to prevent accidents. This isn’t possible on a truck, but no steps have been taken to find a better solution and the standards that apply to them (EN 1501:5) are too loose.

“From my point of view, both the suppliers and the purchasers now need to be a bit wiser. The suppliers should be thinking: ‘How can I make this piece of equipment safe?’ And purchasers should be saying: ‘Don’t sell me that bit of kit unless it is safe’,” Jones says.

Golembiewski adds: “It is important to consider the role designers of equipment and machinery have, which is to design out hazards associated with equipment, machinery and working environments and processes. Greater emphasis on designing safe places of work and safe machinery is essential to driving down accidents in the sector.”

Leveraging technology and design to enhance worker safety

Jones continues: “We have AI now being deployed [in trials at waste sites] which can predict when somebody is going to commit an unsafe act and raise an alert, so somebody can intervene. If they can do that, you would think it is not terribly difficult for the AI to be able to look at the back of a truck and tell the difference between a bin and a person.”

The nature of accidents in the sector has changed: 20 years ago, around 45-50% of accidents were related to transport and fewer than 10% were related to machinery. These figures are now more equal, due to improvements in transport and the increased use of machinery.

Machinery is an area where accidents are still happening and there is some growth – as a result, it has received focus from HSE and WISH. A lot of machinery originates from the agricultural sector, for which it was designed, so there needs to be more questions asked about what waste material the equipment will be used for, its suitability, and how and where it will be integrated into operations.

Collaboration and knowledge sharing for improved safety practices

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The large proportion of SMEs in the sector, who may not be as educated on health and safety as the large players or have the same management systems in place, is another factor in the mix. Jones recognises that the sector needs to better reach out to these operators and share its knowledge through organisations such as WISH and ESA.

FCCboxStokes and his dedicated SHEQ team at FCC Environment are involved with sharing knowledge at various WISH and ESA safety groups. The business takes a continuous improvement approach to health and safety, is accredited to several ISO standards, and has a British Safety Council Five-Star rating, which involves regular external audits.

Its approach includes the development of three-year improvement plans, followed by an anonymous safety climate survey to get feedback from all employees on safety culture. New plans are then made, and the process is repeated. Its safety culture score has gone up each time.

The SHEQ team has now pushed its improvement plans to the divisions so that division directors, managers and employees work on their own improvement plans – an approach that has created greater buy-in.

Stokes adds that having competent supervisors is critical to having a safe operation – and upskilling people will be key. Also, with increasing levels of data, there will be a greater need for developing insight from this data.

As for issues that the sector needs to better understand, Jones says two areas are mental health and bioaerosols. While organisations have increasingly focused on mental health (see box: FCC Environment’s Wellbeing Strategy) and the ESA has published guidance, there is a need for more detailed research, which WISH has started. This will help understand the sector’s specific issues so that it can formulate solutions.

How bioaerosols – small airborne particles that originate from organic material and can contain bacteria and fungi – affect human health in different working environments, is another area where we need more knowledge, particularly as food waste collections are set to grow.

As Golembiewski concludes: “Employers, regulators and organisations such as WISH and LAWS continue to seek ways of improving communication and implementation of good risk management and safe work practices – and by working together to ensure engagement and learning, we aim to reduce fatalities in the sector.”

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