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Report highlights safety issues in US recycling industry

Report highlights safety issues in US recycling industry

Recycling work is ‘unnecessarily hazardous to workers’ health and safety’ resulting in the deaths of 17 recycling workers on the job in America between 2011 and 2013, according to a new report.

The claims come in ‘Sustainable and safe recycling’ – a report compiled by GAIA, Partnership for Working Families, MassCOSH, and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health – that aims to improve the working conditions and protect the health and safety of American recycling workers.

According to the study, injury rates in the industry can be more than double the national average. ‘By addressing this problem, local governments have an opportunity to secure the sustainability and health of their cities while ensuring that recycling jobs are good jobs’, the report states.

Temporary workers reputedly earn 22 per cent less than their regular counterparts and suffer much more frequent injuries due to a lack of adequate health and safety training and a fear of dismissal when questioning dangerous practices.

The report analyses the top nine hazards that recycling workers face on the job, and suggests a number of policy solutions to help improve the health and wellbeing of recycling workers.

According to the report, the top nine hazards faced by recycling workers are:

  1. Risk of being struck by vehicles, falling bales or materials: Eight material recovery facility (MRF) workers died after being struck by vehicles or crushed by falling bales or other objects between 2011-2013.
  2. Working with moving machinery: Workers removing performing maintenance can be injured if insufficiently trained or if the machinery is not powered down.
  3. Exposure to dangerous materials: Mixed waste can contain hypodermic needles, broken glass, sharp metals, rotting animals, hazardous chemicals and respiratory hazards.
  4. Repetitive strain injuries (RSIs):  The numbers of workers positioned on a sorting line, sorting line speed, and width of the conveyor belt all contribute to the intensity of severity of awkward and repetitive working postures. Seventy per cent of workers surveyed experienced an illness from job exposure in 2013.
  5. Extreme temperatures and fatigue: The fixed pace of conveyor belts limits workers’ ability to take breaks to rehydrate or warm up. Protective clothing removed in high temperatures increases the risk of injury.
  6. Respiratory hazards: Workers are often exposed to dust containing plastics, glass, biohazards, endotoxins, and other respiratory hazards.
  7. Noise and vibration exposure: Loud noises can cause elevated stress levels and hearing loss. Many centres reportedly expose workers to unsafe levels of noise.
  8. Slips, trips and falls: Spills, obstacles, floor mats, slippery floors, moving from a wet to a dry surface, uneven or un-level floors, inadequate footwear, a lack of handrails and poor lighting all contribute to accidents.
  9. Occupational stress and other hazards: High stress levels may be caused by a fear of injury, an inability to communicate safety concerns (due to language barriers), threats or harassment from colleagues, production quotas and line speed.

The report makes the following policy recommendations:

  1. Unionised workplaces: Unionised workers purportedly enjoy more effective enforcement of legislated labour protections such as health and safety and overtime regulations.
  2. Conditional public contracts: Municipalities are advised to take into account the health and safety records when awarding contracts, and ensure that contractors, lessees and franchisees submit a written Illness and Injury Prevention Programme (I2P2) and provide subsequent evidence that any deficiencies have been rectified.
  3. Abate OSHA violations promptly: Any violations should be corrected within the specified time frame regardless of whether they are being challenged or not.
  4. Restrict the use of temporary workers: According to the study, temporary workers are often paid less, given insufficient training and suffer higher accident rates. The study advises the introduction of policies to move temporary workers into permanent positions or, alternatively, assure that all workers within the same classification are provided the same wages, benefits, and training.
  5. Seamless service provisions: If contracts change hands, the report recommends that experienced workers remain on the job for at least 90 days.
  6. Anti-retaliatory measures: Workers protected by anti-retaliation measures are more likely to pre-emptively flag health and safety issues.
  7. Wage measures: Worker health can be improved by adequate pay levels.
  8. Fair workweek policies: Workers should be provided with certainty about their working schedules to help reduce stress levels.
  9. Public education: Educating the public to separate their waste correctly and what not to include in their recycling can help reduce sorting injuries.
  10.  Dust control measures: Reduced dust levels can alleviate respiratory conditions suffered by workers and the local community.
  11.  Reduce vehicle and machine exhausts: Engineering controls, alternative fuels and electric or hybrid systems and compliance with vehicle idling laws are suggested to help reduce exhaust fumes in facilities.
  12.  Inspections: Frequent and transparent access to facilities for city personnel can help ensure compliance with health and safety regulations.

Recycling needs to be done ‘the right way’

Speaking of the report Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said:

“Recycling is the right thing to do, but we have to do it the right way – that means educating and empowering recycling workers, and using proven prevention strategies which we know will reduce exposure to hazardous conditions. That’s how we can avoid tragedies like the death of a recycling worker just last week in Florida.”

Monica Wilson of GAIA (the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) added: “If we are serious about solving the world’s ecological crises, we need to invest in protecting the lives and livelihoods of workers whose daily efforts are reducing pollution, conserving precious resources, and mitigating climate change.”

Find out more about GAIA or read the full report

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