The waste and recycling industry is as rife with risk as it is with opportunity. Despite growing emphasis on safety, refuse and recyclable material collection remains one of the five most fatal occupations in the country: according to 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the incidence rate for collection workers was 10 times the national average, with SWANA reporting a further "unprecedented" surge in fatal incidents at the beginning of 2019.
The urgent realities of this sobering landscape were acknowledged at this month's WasteExpo conference in Las Vegas, which devoted a session to "Taking Safety from the Executive Office to the Frontline."
Establishing a robust safety culture
More training, more audits, more procedures, more of the same. When accidents happen, companies typically respond by ramping up traditional improvement efforts — and then going back to business as usual.
"That's not the answer," Justin Ganschow, senior safety consultant at Caterpillar Inc., stressed to session attendees. Rather than settling for a purely reactive policy, he said, companies should cultivate and sustain positive workplace safety norms — and this means shifting the burden of safety to everyone: top leaders, middle managers, front-line supervisors, hourly employees.
"Companies generally place safety on the shoulders of supervisors," Ganschow noted. "However, they leave out everyone else — CEOs, VPs, managers — who outlines expectations for managers."
A proactive safety culture hinges on end-to-end accountability: defining clear expectations for every role, equipping people to accurately execute those roles, measuring performance and responding with appropriate feedback.
That last element, Ganschow asserted, is critical.
"A lot of times, accountability in safety is a negative word, because we use it to discipline people," he observed. "But most of the time, employees are doing things right — and leaders should be focusing on and recognizing what they're doing right."
Positive recognition, Ganschow said, can be formal (planned, initiated by an authority figure, potentially involving some sort of reward) or informal (spontaneous, initiated by anyone, occurring at a higher frequency than formal recognition) — but either way, it should be timely, sincere and frequent.
Talking it out
Christopher Bergacs, a collections, recycling & equipment manager at Mazza Recycling Services, emphasized the importance of good old-fashioned communication in advancing floor safety.
"You have employees who've been engaging in the wrong habits for years," he noted. "How do you change that 'tough guy' mentality and culture?"
Simply enacting safety procedures, Bergacs said, might not do the trick. Instead, he advised attendees to get to know employees and discover what motivates them — the "tough guy" unconvinced by abstract regulations, for instance, might be swayed by arguments appealing to his love for his young daughter.
"The more you get out of the office and talk to employees, the better it'll be," Bergacs said. "You need to engage with them in order to get them invested in what you're trying to do."
"Every employee has a unique personality, and their purpose to the company is different as well," he added. "What language do they speak? A lot of facilities only conduct their safety training in English, when many of their employees speak Spanish. Where are they from? What age are they? All of that needs to be factored in when thinking about safety."