- The number of workplace fatalities increased dramatically for U.S. solid waste collection workers in 2018, up to 57 compared with 32 in 2017, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data for NAICS code 562111. This marks the highest recorded total for this category of the decade.
- Following a multi-year trend, the separate classification category of "refuse and recyclable material collectors" had the fifth-highest fatality rate of any occupation. Only workers in the roofing, aircraft, fishing and logging industries had higher fatality rates. Fatalities for this category increased to 37, up from 31 in 2017.
- The overall "waste management and remediation services" category, which also includes hazardous waste and other non-MSW categories, had 95 fatalities in 2018. This includes three fatalities at landfills and three at MRFs.
This news follows a November report from BLS that non-fatal injury and illness rates also increased for collection workers in 2018 to a point that is nearly double the national average for all occupations. And while the data is not a total shock for the industry – the Solid Waste Association of North America's own 2018 analysis yielded a similar number earlier this year – it is still a sobering development.
“The BLS 2018 fatality data for the industry is not surprising, as we have been telling SWANA members and others in the industry that we had identified an increase in fatal incidents last year since we recorded 19 of them in January 2018,” CEO David Biderman said in a statement to Waste Dive. “The increased strength of the economy in 2018 may have played a role in the higher number of fatal incidents, as volumes increased."
Industry efforts to pass "Slow Down to Get Around" laws, engage in education about distracted driving, and share safety resources with operators of all sizes have ramped up in recent years, along with other initiatives. Yet it appears there is still a need for ongoing creativity and vigilance to reverse trends. A recently established safety alliance between the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), SWANA and the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) has been noted as one development that could help improve the situation.
“The National Waste and Recycling Association is saddened by the increase in fatalities in the industry. NWRA and our members are committed to improving safety in our industry and we will never accept any loss of life,” said President and CEO Darrell Smith in a statement.
NWRA also noted its upcoming efforts, working with the Environmental Research & Education Foundation, to establish a clear methodology for tracking industry fatalities and injuries. The difference between 2018 tallies for collection worker categories is a sign of the potential value in a more precise methodology.
Based on news reports from 2019 — including one day where three industry workers died in as many states — it is clear that the issue remains ongoing. Given this latest data spike, and the many variables encountered on the road, collection workers are likely to remain a key focal point in those discussions. The smaller, yet persistent, number of deaths at landfills and MRFs will also bear further attention. As explored in a recent Waste Dive series, MRF workers still face ongoing safety hazards – often with less discussion than other aspects of the industry's workforce – and that trend will continue in the near future even with the rise of advanced technology such as robotics.
According to BLS, 5,250 workers died on the job across all occupations last year – up from 2017 – but the national fatality rate remained unchanged. Transportation incidents accounted for 40% of those deaths across all occupations and are also a common factor in the waste and recycling industry. Other notable demographic trends highlighted by BLS at the national level include a 16% increase in the number of "non-Hispanic Black or African American" worker deaths and a 6% increase for "Hispanic or Latino" workers.