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An unhealthy place to work?

A recent report by the Health and Safety Executive concluded the management of health at a number of MRFs was not adequate. David O’Malley looks at the issue

With tough EU targets to achieve, there seems little doubt that the number of MRFs and their importance within the waste industry as a whole is likely to increase. But there are important health effects to consider in the industry’s inevitable and positive growth path.

The collection, separation and composting of household waste generates organic dusts. Numerous studies have indicated that exposure to airborne micro-organisms, and their toxic by-products may cause health problems among workers that handle the waste. Although MRFs are increasingly mechanised, there remains a heavy reliance on manual operations.

Given the potential increase in the number of employees working in the waste and recycling industry, these hazards cannot be ignored without implications for workers’ health.

The HSE’s recently published report RR977: Occupational Hygiene Implications of Processing Waste at Materials Recycling Facilities (MRFs) provides data from research that was carried out by the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) at seven MRFs. Three sites were operated by local authorities, four by two separate private companies.

The investigation was three-fold and was based on:

  • the measurement of exposures to dust and its microbiological components,
  • an assessment of the control measures that were employed to prevent exposure, and
  • a health survey in the form of a questionnaire completed by interview.

The exposures

The researchers looked at workers’ exposures to:

  • general airborne dust,
  • endotoxins, i.e. toxins present inside a bacterial cell that are released when it dies, and
  • micro-organisms, predominantly fungi and bacteria, which form part of the airborne dusts in recycling plants, and which can cause respiratory allergies and infection.

They found that 5% of the exposures to general airborne dust fitted the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) definition of a substance hazardous to health. This includes dust of any kind to which workers are liable to be exposed at airborne concentrations of 10 milligrams per cubic metre or more. Such exposures occurred particularly in sorting cabins at highly mechanised sites with high-energy sorting machines, which agitated the waste.

For endotoxins, at present no UK workplace exposure limit (WEL) has been set.  However, 34% of the endotoxin exposures were above the level proposed by the Dutch Expert Committee on Occupational Safety of 90 endotoxin units per cubic metre.

For micro-organisms, there are again no UK occupational exposure limits. However, compared with other studies, the measured airborne concentrations of bacteria and fungi were predominantly found to be within the “medium range”, although it should be noted that this is more than 10 times the normal upper concentration found in ambient air.

Main results of the HSL report: the health survey

The health survey of 100 MRF workers, 96 of whom were male, indicated that:

  • Health issues included skin, respiratory, gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal symptoms and dexterity problems.
  • Some 84% of workers reported health problems that they attributed to their job; 15% of these were seen by their GP.
  • There was a lack of showers, hand washing facilities and clothes-washing and changing facilities.
  • There were generally no or inadequate facilities to store uniforms or work clothes separately from non-contaminated, non-work clothes.
  • Training for new starters was variable. Where provided, the worker training was not formalised, and did not cover specific work-related health issues.

MRF management issues

The research also highlighted a number of key management issues within the MRF sites studied:

  • Reasons for worker absence and ill health were not explored, for example by exit and return-to-work interviews or local health surveys.
  • Occupational health services were not integrated into the health and safety management system.
  • The value of a risk-based health surveillance programme was generally not understood. Even where an organisation believed it had a health surveillance programme in place, it was not risk-based, and records were unavailable.

Control measures

At the sites visited, there was a lack of corporate occupational health strategies, accompanying policies and arrangements for their implementation. HSL also found that the COSHH risk assessments had either not been carried out or were in need of review at most of the sites.

Only one of the seven sites used a local exhaust ventilation (LEV) system to try to control operator exposure, but as that site had the highest measured exposures, this indicated the LEV system had limited effectiveness. Forced general ventilation was present in sorting cabins at four of the MRFs, but some of these systems were in a state of disrepair.

The study found that respirators were often made available to all and, occasionally were recommended for certain tasks. But there were no clear policies in place for their use, so training and supervision of users could be improved. None of the sites had carried out any fit-testing of the respirators, and at some sites the type of dust mask provided was not suitable for the task.

Areas for improvement

Although the report was only recently published this year, the research was conducted by HSL at the seven MRFs between February and August 2010.

The HSE has published some new guidance in this area (see Further Information). HSE says this research was a very small sample of volunteer sites and while it gives useful information, it would be unwise to draw conclusions as to whether it accurately represents a wider picture. It will, however, inform what HSE is looking for during its programme of inspection visits at recycling facilities nationwide.  Once complete, it will have a clearer idea of how widespread occupational health issues are and whether adequate steps are being taken to manage them. Positive changes have been reported at the sites visited for the report.

In my view HSE does not provide guidance that is detailed or specific enough about how to adequately control dust and bio-aerosol exposures at MRFs using engineering methods.  It has confirmed that reference will shortly be included to the legal requirements and practical methods for buying and using LEV to control airborne contaminants at work, which can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/lev .

What is clear from the report, are the definite areas where improvements can and should be made at MRFs:

Risk assessments and controls: It found a general absence of corporate health strategies, and a lack of suitable risk assessments dealing with exposure to dust and bio-aerosols. There is a need for a strategic approach to health risk management, and to ensure that the level of control is improved and monitored.

It appeared that too heavy a reliance was being placed on the provision of respiratory protective equipment (RPE), though there was no requirement for it to be worn, and the wrong type of RPE was sometimes provided. None of the sites had carried out the RPE fit-testing required.

The need for better hygiene facilities: It highlighted a need for adequate welfare facilities and lockers for workers, to prevent work-related ill-health and cross-contamination. Workplace layouts need to be well designed so workers are directed to use the facilities before eating, drinking or leaving the workplace.

Health surveillance: A system for monitoring and managing work-related health risks in MRFs needs to be devised by managers with the involvement and agreement of occupational health services. A risk-based approach is needed, with feedback to the organisation. These are best integrated within the existing health and safety framework.

An appropriate health surveillance scheme, with onward referral to occupational health services for further investigation and diagnosis, is key to the early detection of any cases of work-related breathing problems. In my view, use of regular lung function testing could well be advisable.

Training of workers: Workers (both agency and direct employees) need specific health advice and training regarding the health risks, this should include details of what they need to do in order to protect their health.

If these four key aspects are managed, important strides will be made in the protection of worker health at MRFs.

David O’Malley is a chartered occupational hygienist and the President of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS)

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