- The rate of workplace fatalities among “refuse and recyclable material collectors” decreased in 2020, but the occupation remained the sixth deadliest in the United States for the second year in a row, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
- For every 100,000 full-time collection workers, there were 33.1 fatal work injuries, down from 35.2 in 2019. Overall, there were 31 fatalities in the related "solid waste collection" category for 2020, with 16 of those resulting from transportation incidents. This was down from 2019, when there were 43 fatalities, 26 of which were due to transportation incidents.
- Though collection worker fatalities declined this year, deaths at MRFs and landfills increased. There were four MRF deaths in 2020, compared to three in 2019. BLS recorded six fatalities at solid waste landfills and none in 2019. However, the Solid Waste Association of North America's internal fatality data, which also includes deaths of contract workers and members of the public, showed two landfill workers were killed on the job that year.
The National Waste and Recycling Association and the Solid Waste Association of North America both said the news was generally good, but “while we saw a modest decrease in collection fatalities for the second consecutive year, there are still too many of them. It’s a reminder that we need to work harder,” said David Biderman, SWANA’s executive director and CEO. Waste industry safety professionals have been racing to make lasting gains in safety improvements, especially after a spike to 57 deaths in 2018, including 44 related to transportation incidents.
The overall number of fatal injuries across all occupations was 4,764, the lowest count since 2013. That amount decreased by 10.7% in 2020, BLS said. The fatal work injury rate was 3.4 fatalities per 100,000 FTE, down from 3.5 per 100,000 FTE in 2019, BLS reported.
SWANA expects overall waste worker fatalities will continue to fall in 2021 and aims to release its annual data by the end of February, Biderman said.
The news comes after BLS reported last month that incidences of injuries and illnesses among solid waste collection workers improved in 2020 as well. That rate was 5.2 total cases per 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers, down from 5.9 the previous year.
SWANA aims to “get waste collection employees out of the top 10 list” through ongoing programs such as its hauler safety outreach initiative, in which SWANA chapters share safety information with waste haulers in person at landfills and transfer stations, Biderman said. The program stalled during 2020 when face-to-face activities halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Biderman said several chapters restarted the program in 2021 and have plans to continue it next year. SWANA also started a new safety newsletter in 2021, which provides short, straightforward safety tips for frontline workers in both English and Spanish.
In a news release, NWRA stated it was also doing its part to decrease fatalities, including a partnership with the National Safety Council “to better understand the risks in the industry." NWRA also has a partnership with the Environmental Research & Education Foundation on a safety research project.
NWRA and SWANA were pleased to see an overall reduction in transportation-related fatalities, but say it remains a major safety issue in the industry when waste workers are involved in crashes, are hit by their own waste vehicle or another vehicle, or fall off the back of a truck.
Transportation-related deaths were the most frequent type of fatality across all occupations BLS tracks, with 1,778 fatal injuries this year, or 37.3% of overall fatalities. However, fatal transportation incidents fell 16.2% to 1,778 in 2020 from 2,122 in 2019.
Meanwhile, deaths of workers identified as Hispanic or Latino was 4.5 deaths per 100,000 FTE workers in 2020, up from 4.2 in 2019. Deaths of Black or African-American workers decreased 14.7% in 2020, going from 634 in 2019 to 541 in 2020, BLS reported.