Recycling our garbage is good for the planet, but a new report finds that the workers who process our recyclable materials often face dangerous and unnecessary conditions that put their health and safety at serious risk.
Released in late June, “Sustainable and Safe Recycling: Protecting Workers Who Protect the Planet” chronicles the many hazards that recycling workers encounter on the job as well as ways the recycling industry and local officials can collaborate to improve and ensure worker safety. The report — a collaboration between the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, the Partnership for Working Families and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) — finds that recycling workers are more than twice as likely to be injured at work as the average worker. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 U.S. recycling workers experienced fatal incidences, including being hit by moving vehicles, being crushed or caught in heavy machinery and being buried under mounds of materials. Just days before the report’s release, a worker in Florida was crushed to death in a cardboard compactor at a recycling facility near Orlando.
“Recycling is the right thing to do, but we have to do it the right way,” said Mary Vogel, executive director of National COSH, in a news release. “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 (month) in Florida.”
In reviewing OSHA citations, the report’s authors found a number of incidents that illustrate the dangers that recycling workers experience. Just of few of those citations include lack of worker protective gear, unguarded machinery that can cause amputation and other injury, and improper lockout/tagout procedures (these types of procedures prevent the release of hazardous energy while a worker is servicing a machine). The report also cited previous interviews and surveys with recycling workers, who’ve reported ergonomic injuries, being stuck with needles and hit with flying objects, being exposed to so much dust they have difficulty breathing, and being under constant stress to work as quickly as possible.
The report also noted that many recycling facilities rely heavily on workers hired through temporary staffing agencies. Unfortunately, relying on temporary workers too often results in employers shunting their responsibilities to ensure worker health and safety, and that means temp workers typically suffer more frequent injury rates.
The authors compiled the top nine hazards that recycling workers face — “hazards (that) can be mitigated by careful facility and work station design, proper equipment, comprehensive health and safety plans, thorough training, and implementation of systems that include workers in managing health and safety,” the report stated. Among the top nine are working with moving machinery, working for hours at a time in awkward postures, respiratory hazards, falling objects, slips and trips, and exposure to dangerous materials, such as broken glass, used needles, toxic chemicals and animal carcasses. According to the report:
Materials Recovery Facility work is inherently unpredictable. Recycling sorting workers are required to visually inspect and sort different categories of recyclable materials. Unlike a factory or manufacturing setting, where upstream inputs are known, the recycling stream is influenced by the misconceptions or errors of millions of consumers who place inappropriate and potentially dangerous objects or substances into the municipal recycling stream. Recycling workers have to quickly identify hazards as they pass by on the sort line and respond appropriately to the hazard.
Consider this excerpt, which describes how poor design can result in preventable ergonomic injury:
With arms extended, shoulders reaching, hands constantly clasping objects that are moving at a set pace on a vibrating conveyor belt, many workers are twisting, reaching or jumping to toss or place materials into the proper bin or chute. In one study most of the physical complaints of (recycling) workers were associated with the awkward physical postures (Lavoie and Guertin 2001).
The number of workers positioned on a sorting line, sorting line speed, and width of the conveyer belt contribute greatly to the frequency, intensity, and severity of awkward and repetitive postures on the line.
During interviews, some workers described how they had created their own personal hand tools (sticks with bent nails or hooks) to assist them with line sorting jobs and to attempt to relieve the stress of continuous forward reaching. Handmade tools like this indicate that the height and width of conveyer belts and other machines are not well designed.
The report offers a number of best practices for reducing and mitigating the risk of injury to recycling workers, such as calling on municipal governments to require contracted recycling companies to submit illness and injury prevention plans and reduce OSHA violations, to prohibit the use of temporary workers, and require inspection access by city personnel. The report also urges local officials to implement public awareness efforts that educate residents on how to properly separate their garbage, which would help reduce the amount of dangerous materials that make it to recycling facilities.
It’s true that recycling is a critical component of efforts to confront dwindling resources as well as reduce waste, pollution and the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It’s also good for the economy, with the potential to create millions of new jobs in the recycling sector. But the report warns that “urgent action” is needed to protect the workers who are working to protect the planet.
“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,” said Monica Wilson, director of the U.S. and Canada Program at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
To download a full copy of the new report, visit National COSH.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.