Editor's Note: This piece, written by SWANA CEO David Biderman, is a response to Dr. Ken Baylor's recent piece on the industry's "inadequate" approach to safety. The opinions represented in this piece are independent of Waste Dive's views.
Is the solid waste industry’s safety record acceptable to you? How do you feel about the fact that waste collection is the 5th most dangerous job in the United States, and has a worker fatality rate higher than firefighters or police officers? Do you sleep well knowing that the industry has thousands of recordable injuries and illnesses each year, and more than 2,000 accidents that are so bad, a vehicle needs to be towed away from the scene?
More than 15 years ago, I became what was then the National Solid Wastes Management Association’s (NSWMA) first Safety Director. I’ve provided safety training to thousands of managers, supervisors, and front line collection workers in the public sector and the private sector, from California to Chicago to Boston, and virtually everywhere in between. I've been blessed to have been mentored by and becomes good friends with several very knowledgeable industry safety leaders. When I joined SWANA in April 2015, we immediately rang the bell on safety: the current safety performance of the industry is simply not acceptable. Since then, we have developed a robust set of new tools and resources for employers and employees to use that can prevent accidents and injuries. I won’t bore you with the list – go to our website.
My good friend Ken Baylor was the Lawrence Lecturer at WASTECON several years ago, and spoke there about the need for all of us to have pride in being, as he puts it, "a garbageman." He is correct, and that is why my initial safety campaign theme was "Be Safe, Be Proud." Last week, his "Call to Action" concerning the current safety culture in the waste industry was published. According to Ken, "the solid waste industry stinks at safety."
While I agree with Ken that, based on my personal observations, many haulers need to radically change and improve their safety culture, some companies and local governments have made precisely the improvements he calls for: authentic leadership from management, organization-wide commitment, strict regulatory compliance, training, training and more training, and then more communications on top of that. The largest companies in the industry have reduced their injury and accident rates very significantly over the past decade. As part of SWANA's new Awards program, I have learned about new initiatives at smaller companies and local governments that are cutting injury rates by upwards of 50%. It can be done, but it takes commitment, and it can't just be the job of the "safety department." It's everyone’s responsibility, from the driver to the supervisor to the salesperson to the GM to the Sanitation Commissioner to the CEO, and everyone in between.
SWANA agrees that safety isn’t proprietary, and is facilitating the sharing of best practices, experience, and information at both the chapter and national levels. It's a local business, and we need to get these resources into the hands of the small employers in the industry who are not members of SWANA (or NWRA) and who won't attend a safety seminar, even if it’s in their backyard. To achieve this goal, SWANA is partnering with a number of other associations. At WASTECON in Indianapolis, we will be releasing a new best practices document for natural gas refuse trucks that we developed in collaboration with the NGVAmerica. We are promoting NWRA’s periodic Safety Stand Downs. We are planning new initiatives in 2017 with several other organizations who share SWANA’s perspective that we need to do much more on safety.
Peter Drucker wrote that "culture eats strategy for lunch." He’s right. All the strategic planning about "process improvement" and "measurable goals" will be irrelevant if we don’t change the culture of the industry – one garbage company and one local government at a time. It’s not easy, and no one should pretend that it is. Our workers face a wide variety of hazards, including themselves and the vehicles and heavy equipment they operate. There were at least 10 fatal accidents involving the industry just in July. This is not acceptable to SWANA. Nothing we do is more important than making sure that all 400,000 people who work in the waste and recycling industry, in the United States and Canada, get home to their loved ones each and every day. We welcome your active participation in our efforts.