By Jonathan Stolk
December 15, 2020
Waste and recycling sector workers are at high risk of injury or fatality while at work, according to safety data. GAIA reported on recycling plant safety in 2015. It found that U.S. recycling plant employees were more than twice as likely to suffer an injury in the workplace than the average worker.
The workplace fatality figures are also a cause for concern in America:
Source: Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, 2018 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics
The issues extend across the pond, too. The fatality rate in the UK waste and recycling sector per 100,000 employees standing at 18 times the all-worker average for 2019/20. Throughout the whole European Union, the rate of non-fatal workplace accidents between 2010 and 2017 was on average 1,556.86. But, in the waste management industry, that leaped to 3,056.32.
There are many theories as to why this is the case. This report by GAIA suggested a number of reasons for these results. It picked up on unsafe conditions, lack of proper training, exposure to hazardous products in particular.
So, yes, recycling plant safety is certainly a topic that we have to talk about. Let’s go over the top 11 hazards you need to watch out for at recycling plants in this article.
Hazards and health effects by activity per Poole, Basu, Systematic Review: Occupational illness in the waste and recycling sector.
|Recycling activity||Hazards to health||Reported clinical and biological effects|
|Composting, municipal solid and toxic waste||Heavy manual handling, inorganic dust, bioaerosols, VOCs, PAHs, heavy metals, dioxins, furans||Fatal and non-fatal injuries, MMI, OA, EAA, ABPA, asbestos-related lung disease, abnormal lung function, gastro-intestinal disease, contact dermatitis, Q fever, leptospirosis|
|Metals, batteries, cables, wires, and catalytic converters||Inorganic dust, lead, other heavy metals to include Hg and Pt, noise, radioactive materials, dioxins, furans||Pb poisoning in lead-acid battery; raised urinary Hg in alkaline battery workers|
|Glass to include cathode-ray tubes||Noise, bioaerosols||MMI, raised blood Pb|
|Fluorescent lights||Inorganic dust, metal fume, mercury, lead, yttrium||Hg and Pb poisoning, MGN, and nephrotic syndrome|
|Landfill||Inorganic dust, bioaerosols, asbestos, gases||MMI, respiratory, dermatological, and gastrointestinal symptoms|
|Textiles||Organic dust, bioaerosols||MMI, respiratory symptoms, abnormal lung function tests, byssinosis, COPD, OA|
|Wood, chipboard, and bark chippings||Dust, bioaerosols||Acute pulmonary aspergillosis from bark chippings; OA from burning wood; MMI, OA, EAA, COPD from manufacturing with wood|
|Medical waste||Sharps, blood-borne viruses, radioactive materials, heavy metals in incinerator ash||Seroconversion from sharps injury|
|Paper||Organic contamination, bioaerosols||MMI, OA, sensitization to storage mites|
|WEEE||Heavy manual handling, inorganic dust, PAHs, heavy metals, dioxins, furans, brominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants)||Respiratory symptoms, abnormal lung function, adverse neonatal outcomes, chromosomal aberrations, argyria|
Workers in a materials recovery facility (MRF) are likely to be exposed to chemical substances. Particularly if they work in a so-called “dirty MRF”, where they separate mixed waste manually on the sort line. In addition, if a plant recycles batteries, there is the potential for exposure to chemicals such as acid, cadmium, mercury, and lead. Lead is also an issue for workers who recycle scrap metal. They have to deal with other metalworking fluids too.
There is the risk of infection from pathogenic microorganisms when working with items such as medical waste, animal feces, and even human waste from diapers. The moisture on site can contribute to an environment in which these biological hazards can grow and multiply. This increases the chances of causing harm to the worker. Garbage from laboratories and items such as hypodermic needles can carry the risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis.
Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when the median nerve is squeezed at the wrist. This can result in pain, numbness, or weakness in the hand or wrist. One of the known contributors to carpal tunnel syndrome is the regular use of vibrating machinery, which is why recycling plant workers and those in manufacturing, mining, and other related industries often suffer from the illness.
There are a number of different ways workers can damage their skin at recycling plants. When handling engine oil and diesel over a long period of time, there is a risk of skin cancer, with other waste and recycling workers reporting skin irritation and infections as a result of airborne bacteria. Exposure to chemicals in municipal solid waste, or mixed municipal waste as it is referred to in the European Union, can irritate the eyes. As can the dust that emits from recycling wood, paper, and cardboard.
The Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders in Ontario, Canada has expressed concern over plants that require workers to reach more than 50cm (19.6 inches) when rooting out non-recyclable materials on conveyor belts. This repetitive motion and the resulting awkward postures for the back and shoulder can lead to long term pain and damage to the worker. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive reports that one-third of all reported injuries in the waste management and recycling world are Musculoskeletal disorders and manual handling injuries.
When colleagues are working on opposite sides of an automatic conveyor, sorting waste, it is difficult to maintain the recommended six-foot/two-meter social distance to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. The reason that workers have to be in such close quarters usually is so nothing non-recyclable is missed. When it comes to PPE, the use of such personal protective equipment does mitigate against infections and viruses like Covid-19, but in hot environments, wearing additional clothing like this can lead to heat-related illnesses.
There are many different machines with moving parts to contend with at recycling facilities. Careless use of conveyor belts, sorting machinery, and compactors can lead to lacerations as well as crushed hands, feet and limbs, and even amputations.
There are many potential ways a worker can be injured by being struck at a recycling plant. It could be improperly secured material bales falling, a colleague dropping a tool from height, a moving piece of machinery, a forklift truck being maneuvered around the site without due care, or one of many other examples of items dropping onto or otherwise striking a worker.
Cranes and forklift trucks can overturn when improperly stacked in a recycling plant environment. This can cause workers to be trapped underneath. Similarly, when materials that are piled up fall or poorly maintained walls collapse, there is a risk hazard.
With so many materials around on site, there are multiple opportunities for workers to trip and fall. Many recycling plants produce a lot of moisture, which provides a slip hazard in the workplace. There are also often a number of tall structures on which an employee might be required to climb, including ladders, pylons, and cranes. This provides a risk of the worker falling from a height. Slips, trips, and falls were the second most common cause of workplace non-fatal injuries in the US in 2019 and the third most common cause of fatal injuries at work.
78% of British Columbia waste and recycling workers reported suffering from respiratory illnesses due to their employment. The amount of dust on site, as well as airborne pathogens and contaminants, mean that employees can breathe in matter that can cause illness.
There is a real risk of encountering sharp objects when sorting recycling at the plant, which can cause injuries as well as, in some cases, the risk of contracting various illnesses. A syringe can be the source of a plethora of bloodborne pathogens, including life-threatening ones such as HIV.
The waste and recycling industry is a high-risk sector in which to work. However, there are many measures that you can take to reduce the common risks on site. From ensuring there is adequate ventilation to investing in training and working on your occupational safety culture so no worker fears reprisals for reporting an incident or a hazard. By implementing these recycling plant safety tips before there is an incident, you can keep your workplace safe and happy.