Masks or face coverings have become an increasingly common sighting in some parts of the United States during recent weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. While many frontline collection workers are also wearing them in certain areas, the move is not driven by any direct national policy or guidance.
The use of face coverings is gaining traction in recognition of the fact that they can help prevent the spread of the virus, while also offering some level of protection to the person wearing them. A growing list of state and local governments are now requiring or recommending their use, but the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not explicitly issued any advisory at the national level for solid waste collection work. As of publication, neither the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) or Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) is advising collection workers to wear them as a best practice related to COVID-19.
OSHA's evolving guidance on solid waste safety protocols during the pandemic, which draws on information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), started defining the handling of municipal waste or recyclables as among the lowest of four potential exposure risk categories earlier this month. The agency does list "face protection" among the various types of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other usual protocols for workers in the sector to consider at any time, but no explicit guidance is included for how the face protection issue should be treated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this month, NWRA President and CEO Darrell Smith told Waste Dive the association would advise members to follow any government policies as they come but was not taking its own national position. Smith mentioned how the use of any PPE comes with trade-offs, which in this case could include workers touching their faces more often to adjust masks or face coverings. Wearing one could create a "false sense of security" if not done in conjunction with social distancing and other guidelines, he said.
Last Friday, NWRA confirmed the group was not yet recommending collection workers wear masks or face coverings nationwide. The association shared a document showing at least 11 states and the District of Columbia have issued broader requirements for essential workers and members of the public as of last week. Colorado and New York are among those mandating masks or face coverings for workers, along with local governments in a variety of states.
David Biderman, CEO and executive director of SWANA, said the CDC's early April advisory that members of the public consider wearing masks or face coverings has been a factor in this trend. Biderman noted that OSHA would have to update its own personal protective equipment standards as they relate to training and other factors, complicating any potential change.
“Going that next step and saying face masks are personal protective equipment that are required to be worn, that requires some planning and consideration of applicable regulatory standards from a federal perspective," he said last Friday, adding that SWANA is following OSHA and CDC guidance closely to inform its own policies.
While Biderman said it is becoming "more common" to see frontline collection workers wearing face coverings lately – which was less likely in the industry pre-pandemic except for in certain settings like MRFs – the practice is still not universal. Still, news reports in just the past week indicate collection workers are being provided with some type of mask or face covering in many areas – from California to Texas to the District of Columbia.
Chuck Stiles, director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' Solid Waste and Recycling Division, said he is also noticing the trend. At the same time, face protection is not at the level his organization would like to see for waste workers. The union included masks among PPE considered part of best practices for all waste workers in a recent document and Stiles believes the options provided should be more robust.
“I think N95 masks should be standard. That should be in some sort of legislation," he told Waste Dive last Friday, adding that workers doing rear-load collection or cleaning out hopper blades, among other positions, could benefit from a face shield. “I would love to see face shields, especially for workers in the recycling facilities and the landfills should they need them."
Given the initial concern around preserving N95 respirators for healthcare workers, it is less common to see them used in other workplaces, though Stiles said he is aware of it happening in some areas. Still, reports indicate the more prevalent variety is one that many people are now wearing as part of daily life.
“I’m seeing more of the cloth masks than I am anything at this point," said Stiles.
Inquiries larger private and public sector service providers show masks or face coverings have become a more standard part of PPE in certain regions, with some variations.
"Republic Services is continuing to monitor CDC recommendations and adhere to OSHA guidelines. OSHA guidelines tell us that additional special precautions for handing waste are not necessary as a result of COVID-19. However, we have provided face coverings for all of our field employees to use on a voluntary basis, or as directed by local mandates, to help prevent any exposure to COVID-19," said a Republic Services spokesperson in a statement.
Asked whether it had any policies for workers to wear masks or face coverings, Waste Management said requirements were already in place for certain roles and the company is now engaging with the broader workforce as well.
"We released guidelines to our employees about the proper and safe use, care and storage of masks, should they choose to use one," said spokesperson Janette Micelli via email. "WM provides masks to employees for roles that are required to use masks, where local/state ordinances are in place for mask use, and also for employees who voluntarily want to wear them."
New York's Department of Sanitation, which has been hit hard by the virus, told Waste Dive it has been providing face coverings to employees upon request since before state requirements took effect.
"All NYC Sanitation employees are required to wear a face covering when performing service that requires interacting with members of the public, and when it is not possible for the employee to maintain a distance of six feet or more from other employees," said spokesperson Belinda Mager via email.
LA Sanitation and Environment confirmed it is requiring collection workers to wear masks as part of standard PPE and also supplying them.
Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) confirmed a similar approach.
"DSS is following CDC guidelines and guidance from the Chicago Department of Public Health, which states masks are recommended especially where social distancing is not possible. DSS sanitation workers have been given face coverings in addition to traditionally allotted PPE of boots and gloves," said spokesperson Cristina Villarreal in a statement.
While national guidance has yet to emerge on this issue for collection workers, the combination of state or local policies and voluntary policies have begun to show an early trend. Debate may remain on what type of face protection is necessary, and whether the benefit is more for the worker than those around them, but some type of mask or covering is gaining recognition as an appropriate step.
“We want our customers, our communities, our workers and their families safe," said Stiles. “It’s a very easy lift to be quite honest with you."
Biderman likened the practice to service providers asking customers to make sure all of their materials fit inside carts or bags so workers don't have to touch loose items.
“I think it’s becoming more common as it’s an additional prophylactic measure," he said. "If it provides an added measure of security to the workers and makes them more comfortable and better able to focus on their job there’s nothing wrong with that."