- The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) clarified safety guidance for handling MSW with potential or known COVID-19 contamination this week – more than a month after first posting it – following widespread concern in the waste and recycling industry.
- While the agency previously recommended treating this material as regulated medical waste, OSHA now states workers can treat it "like any other non-contaminated municipal waste." OSHA also added specific guidance for recyclable materials. In both cases, workers should be using "typical engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices" and personal protective equipment (PPE).
- The change came after recent engagement by both the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) and Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). As of publication, OSHA did not provide Waste Dive information about what determining factors or information shaped its decision.
According to NWRA, the industry began discussing this issue with federal regulators as far back as January but mainly in the context of handling medical waste. At first, there was some discussion indicating certain types of COVID-19 waste from healthcare facilities would need to be treated as Category A infectious substances (the same designation used for Ebola), but final guidance was to treat it as Category B. As outlined in a Thursday webinar hosted by NWRA and Stericycle, that involves specific procedures for how bags of medical waste are tied, transported and processed.
OSHA appears to have first posted specific solid waste guidance on its website in February, but questions only began to emerge in recent weeks as the new coronavirus was declared a pandemic. Brandon Wright, NWRA's vice president of communications, told Waste Dive that spurred the recent shift.
"A wider audience of more traditional MSW haulers saw that and thought, 'oh, our solid waste needs to be treated like regulated medical waste,' and that kind of sparked some questions," said Wright. "So there was some confusion and a lack of clarity around this."
NWRA and SWANA both signed their first safety alliance agreement with OSHA last year, further opening up lines of communication. Jesse Maxwell, SWANA's advocacy and safety manager, confirmed the change happened after multiple group discussions.
"The OSHA guidance is an important resource that many in the industry will turn to during this time," said Maxwell via email. "Previously it was directed primarily at those handling regulated medical waste and it was not clear enough about the handling of municipal waste and recycling. SWANA is pleased that OSHA has responded appropriately to clarify their message and we are distributing the guidance to our members and have posted it on the SWANA website."
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which has had a safety alliance with OSHA for multiple years, confirmed to Waste Dive it was not part of these specific discussions. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which recently sent letters to major waste company CEOs pressing for more information on worker protection and leave benefits, confirmed to Waste Dive it supports the latest OSHA guidance.
Per the updated OSHA guidance, collection workers can treat all MSW with standard safety precautions that have been put in place to guard against broader contamination or infection issues. Recommended PPE includes "puncture-resistant gloves and face and eye protection," in part to "help protect workers from sharps and other items that can cause injuries or exposures to infectious materials." The same guidance now applies to workers handling recyclable material, such as MRF sorters. More guidance for workplaces is available from both NWRA and SWANA.
While this new guidance may provide further clarity, it comes as service providers and local governments around the United States have already begun making changes due to safety concerns. Beyond heightened cleaning and social distancing practices, some are no longer picking up loose items that fall out of carts or suspending certain types of collection and drop-off service.
Research recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicating COVID-19 can live on certain surfaces for extended periods of time, has further added to these concerns. While no specific clarity has been offered about this study's implications from its authors, or from regulators, safety professionals largely still believe the risk of surface transmission is secondary to respiratory transmission. During a Wednesday webinar hosted by the American Society of Safety Professionals, President-elect Deb Roy said the new research was being taken seriously but noted many caveats to surface transmission such as temperature and humidity.
Still, safety practices around handling MSW that may have COVID-19 connections differ in certain areas. Public Health England, a U.K. government agency, calls for all household material to be double-bagged and set aside for at least 72 hours pending test results for infected individuals.
Given the need for industry employees to continue essential services in their communities, the likelihood of infection is a recognized concern that will prompt additional challenges around absenteeism and heightened risk due to fatigue. OSHA still recognizes waste and recycling workers are among a select few groups that could have occupational exposure. Workers in the healthcare, deathcare, airline, laboratory, border protection and wastewater management sectors are also believed to face heightened risks.
Additional reporting by E.A. Crunden