September 9, 2023
Last year, garbage industry worker fatalities rose nearly 65%, according to the Solid Waste Association of North America, or SWANA. The organization operates several programs to improve safety, but the actions of their customers are also crucial for keeping these workers safe.
Trash truck drivers are usually safe when they remain inside their vehicle, but too many residents are unaware of the requirement to place carts at least 2 feet apart and at least 3 feet from mailboxes, basketball poles and cars. When the automated arm of a trash truck cannot safely grasp a curbside cart, drivers must sometimes exit the cab and move the cart.
Similarly, residents should avoid setting out carts under trees with low-hanging limbs. Consider how high an automated arm must raise your cart, and do not require your driver to move your cart out from under a tree.
Also, place carts at curbs with the hinge of the cart lid facing the home, not the truck, so the lid will hang open and not interfere with dumping the load into the truck’s compactor. Like overfilling, wrong-way carts cause litter. Some drivers feel an obligation to chase down litter blowing out of containers they service.
On trash day, avoid parking on both sides of narrow streets and avoid blocking carts or bins. In communities such as Lake Sherwood, which has backyard trash collection service, be sure dogs are restrained.
Discard flammable liquids and partially full aerosol cans in hazardous waste programs. Recycle batteries at drop-off sites, haul scrap metal to metal recycling yards and bring needles and syringes in containers to authorized sites, such as pharmacies. These items do not belong in your curbside carts.
Local hauling companies are also doing their part to make collectors’ jobs safer. WM, formerly Waste Management, has onboard cameras and computers linked to drivers’ tablets, providing logistic support and route optimization “to maximize efficiency and safety,” according to WM spokesperson Jennifer Andrews. WM is also including electronic stability control and active braking in new trucks.
Athens Services implements a safety program focused on training, compliance, behavior, equipment, monitoring and risk management. “Safety is not about luck, it’s about a process that continuously
improves and verifies itself,” said Rondi Guthrie, vice president of government relations.
The city of Oxnard, which operates a municipal fleet collecting trash and recyclables, ensures workers receive training in handling bloodborne pathogens, responding to compressed natural gas fires and
operating fire extinguishers, among other topics.
Sometimes the heroic actions of workers prevent serious accidents from becoming tragic.
Mathew Tomala was driving an Oxnard refuse truck in October 2022 when he smelled smoke. He kept calm as smoke rose from the compactor of his truck, which was fueled by compressed natural gas. He stayed in the cab, called 911 and drove slowly away from a busy intersection to a safe location. He kept the garbage loaded and enclosed, limiting oxygen, until the fire department arrived. At the direction of firefighters, he slowly opened and tipped the flaming material onto a paved area where it was extinguished.
A different kind of community protection was shown recently by Jesus Velasco, who drives a trash truck with EJ Harrison & Sons. Driver Trainer Joshua Barnes had instructed Velasco on company protocols for keeping drivers and the community safe, including integrated tablets for support and optimization, onboard camera systems and recorded data. Velasco’s actions, however, relied on personal touch, and he may have saved a life. Velasco saw a man in medical distress. He parked, comforted the man and alerted the man’s wife and a neighbor. They called an ambulance, and the man received medical attention in time.
For years, “refuse and recyclable material collectors” has been one of the 10 most dangerous professions in America, topped regularly only by logging, fishing, aircraft operations and roofing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Workers of waste help the community by providing an essential service. We should help them stay safe by following rules for correct set-outs.
David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can be reached at 805-658-4312 or email@example.com.