Waste haulers introduce new safety protocols amid Covid-19

HAMILTON, Ont. – Waste collection remains an essential service in the days of Covid-19, but those who run garbage trucks in this city west of Toronto walked off the job on March 23 because of concerns relating to the virus.

The job action by members of CUPE Local 5167 had come to an end within a day, but local residents are being asked to play their part in keeping the workers safe.

“The concerns have been addressed and the crews are back to work,” confirms Jasmine Graham, senior communications officer with the City of Hamilton.

The job action involved the municipality’s 65 waste collection workers, but not the 135 personnel who are contracted through the Green for Life fleet.

Waste haulers already participate in one of the most dangerous jobs in trucking.

“Our waste collectors are supplied with gloves, eye protection, sanitizer (wipes/gel), and disinfectants for their trucks to ensure their health and safety. Masks aren’t recommended for use outside healthcare settings,” Graham says.

Residents are being asked to follow several measures to protect those on the trucks – placing used tissues and napkins in the garbage rather than green bins, using liner bags in the green bins, and ensuring that all material placed in a garbage bin is bagged and not kept loose. They’re also asked to keep at least two meters away from waste collection staff.

The Hamilton work stoppage wasn’t the only one to occur in the sector, though. Sanitation workers in Pittsburgh, Pa. held a rally at their garage on Wednesday because they were concerned about whether their PPE was appropriate.

They were back to work the next day.

Changing collection volumes

“There is a legitimate concern on the part of the frontline workers about whether they have appropriate PPE to protect them from exposure,” says David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA).

The U.S. government issued guidance for the solid waste sector at the beginning of March, he notes. “The basic gist of it is that solid waste collectors who are wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment – gloves and long pants and all that – should not be exposed to coronavirus.”

It’s largely the same PPE they would normally be expected to wear as protection against any other pathogens. But there are differences. Workplaces have introduced social distancing measures, such as shifting away from tailgate training sessions in favor of one-on-one meetings and digital training, Biderman says.

“There has been a tremendous amount of effort being made to sanitize the vehicles on a daily basis.”

– David Biderman, SWANA

“There has been a tremendous amount of effort being made to sanitize the vehicles on a daily basis,” he adds, referring to high-touch points such as steering wheels, door handles, knobs, arm rests and switches, which SWANA recommends cleaning before and after use.

Those who work in scale houses, meanwhile, are encouraged to wear gloves, change paperwork procedures, and find other ways to reduce contact. Where possible, it recommends against sharing tablets, PPE, and other handheld data equipment as well.

Matt Keliher, the City of Toronto’s general manager – solid waste management services, can identify several changes in his municipality’s operation.

Start times are being staggered, and employees are being pre-screened at the start of their shifts to assess wellness. Each employee is also handed a kit at the beginning of every shift, complete with hand sanitizer and wipes for the daily cleaning of the trucks. New gloves are included with daily PPE, and masks are handed out by request.

Many of the city’s tailgate meetings are being held in a large tent to support physical distancing, too.

In the meantime, the Solid Waste Association of North America is telling municipal officials and private haulers alike to expect significant changes in collection volumes as Canadians and Americans continue to work from home. Commercial volumes, meanwhile, are dropping as restaurants and non-essential businesses close their doors.

“A lot of people have gone out and bought a lot of stuff and ordered a lot of stuff,” Biderman says.

“We have seen an increase in volume, especially the amount of excess recycling,” Keliher says.

SWANA also wants local governments to ask residents to postpone spring cleaning, which can increase the potential of exposure at the curb.

“Workers are concerned about loose trash,” he said. “Somebody has to actually touch [material] that’s not in a cart.”

Toronto has answered that call, asking residents to refrain from putting out any unnecessary waste such as material that would come from spring cleaning. Yard waste collection has been suspended, transfer stations have been closed to the general public, and bin deliveries and exchanges are suspended.

Residents, meanwhile, are being asked to properly dispose of items in the street and park bins, and practice their own physical distancing around waste collection workers. Masks, gloves, wipes, tissues, sanitary napkins, and personal hygiene products are all to be disposed in the garbage.

A dangerous job

Waste collection is already one of the most dangerous jobs in trucking, of course.

Nine Canadian solid waste workers lost their lives last year, up from the four recorded in 2018 and six losses in 27. Across North America, at least 53 solid waste industry workers died on the job in 2019, SWANA says.

The most common cause of death is being struck by their own waste vehicle, followed by single-vehicle accidents causing the waste vehicle alone. More than 40% of worker fatalities could be linked to one of these two causes.

And at least 80 members of the public were killed, most often during collisions with solid waste collection vehicles.

“The number of solid waste-related fatalities continued at unusually high levels in 2018,” Biderman said when the results were released. “We remain concerned about the solid waste industry’s overall safety performance.”

“Employers must look inward for causes and corrective actions,” said Suzanne Sturgeon, chairwoman of SWANA’s safety committee, and health and safety program manager for SCS Field Services. “Changing the culture of workers is essential to this effort. Training frequently in small and digestible doses is paramount to make this shift.”

  • With files from Emily Atkins

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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