AS THE UK MOVES FURTHER towards a circular economy, the safety record of the waste and recycling sector is unsustainable. According to the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, the sector has 16 times more fatalities than the average rate across all industries and twice the rate of injuries and work-related illnesses.
The HSE masterminds periodic campaigns and inspection blitzes and, quite rightly, it prosecutes companies and individuals that fall foul of health and safety laws. But these measures do not appear to be working. Following recent improvements, figures for deaths, injury and illness are failing to improve or are even reversing.
As our sector grows in strategic and economic importance, its safety record is an issue which will need to be addressed urgently in the coming years. Using currently available digital tools for data analytics and communication, we have no excuse not to.
But improvement cannot simply be imposed from the top or come from one single part of the industry. It may be a cliché, but it is true: everybody owns safety. What we need is an across-the-board culture change – and an improved public image for what we do would certainly help.
The waste and recycling sector is hard to categorise in terms of infrastructure. As well as landfill, which is in decline, it includes MRFs and waste transfer stations, energy-from-waste plants and biomass, anaerobic digestion and composting facilities. Together, they process millions of tonnes of waste from construction sites, industry and households all day, every day.
What do they have in common? They all deal with materials that are actually or potentially hazardous along with potentially dangerous equipment. Businesses must work, often in confined spaces, with putrefying food, asbestos and silica dust, with acids and toxins, lithium ion batteries that can explode and even compost which has been known to be combustible.
It is a processing industry – we are lifting and moving things, sometimes manually. Some jobs can be repetitive and carried out in difficult environments. Let’s not forget that rates of musculoskeletal injury, stress, depression and anxiety are far higher in waste and recycling than in other sectors too.
In terms of physical safety, the most modern loaders, shovels and telescopic handlers have effective safety features, including fire suppression systems, filtered and well-guarded cabs and proximity warnings.
We know that one of the main keys to safety is simply to keep machinery and people apart and that the best plants now effectively separate them (at least in theory).
Some processes, such as manual waste segregation, known as ‘totting’, can be automated with optical sensors, and certainly will be in the next 25 years.
The problem with waste and recycling, from a safety point of view, is that we deal with many variables – it’s not like farming, where a tractor is driving up and down a straight line. We are dealing with materials that have different characteristics, feed and run rates.
This means that workers are dealing with a wide range of processes involving vehicles and machinery that each pose their own unique risk profile. The HSE campaigns have specifically targeted vehicles and machinery.
And human error, as much as inappropriate and poorly maintained equipment and the lack of a safety culture, is always going to be one of the main factors in accidents and occupational illness.
So can we do anything about this rather depressing picture? Of course we can. Some actions will require legislation, responding to industry lobbying. The fact that we still lack accredited, sector-specific training for work roles in waste and recycling is staggering. But let’s not just blame other people. What can we do ourselves?
At the beginning of last year, I was talking to a colleague from Biffa in a Portakabin in Somerset. We were discussing improving safety in the waste and recycling sector and agreed that “wouldn’t it be good if someone made some videos?” JCB’s ‘Wastewise’ campaign, which is an industry first, began from that simple conversation and has since grown to include many other facets and dimensions.
First, we formed a forum of key people from across the industry to discuss issues and challenges, but it was important that the initiative was not perceived as coming from only one manufacturer. We were advised throughout by the HSE, and partnered in the campaign with the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, Biffa, HW Martin Group, EU Skills, Mentor Training and Waste Masters Hire.
Last summer we spent two weeks shooting videos at JCB’s demonstration area in Staffordshire. While based on machines in the JCB Wastemaster range, the 10-minute videos are designed to apply to all equivalent plant, regardless of who made it.
“If a piece of technology makes a machine or a process safer, then why wouldn’t you use it? You cannot put a price on a life.”
They cover, in an accessible way, essential pre-shift checks and basic maintenance routines, and provide guidance on ensuring visibility and ongoing machine management. They can be used in lots of ways, including testing the knowledge of operators and incentivising them.
JCB has pushed ‘Wastewise’ hard. We used a telemarketing company to promote the campaign to all our customers, and have sent memory sticks and links widely across the industry and its specialist media.
There is far more to the campaign than videos: evolving technology has played a huge part. Nearly all plant manufacturers now offer telematics software so that fleet performance can be monitored remotely in real-time. But we believe that our JCB LiveLink telematics is a particularly adaptable and well-designed system.
The usual data on fuel consumption, mechanical faults and idling time is monitored at JCB’s uptime centre and available to fleet managers. To the usual metrics we have added health warnings and maintenance prompts. We can provide alerts if machines are moving too quickly or are being operated outside a defined area – LiveLink is a safety tool as much as security device.
The newly launched JCB operator app extends the capabilities of LiveLink further. Activated by QR code, the app takes the paper-based ‘pre-flight’ checks that are essential to operating a complex machine and makes them digital. It can also be used to access the machine’s manual (which you will still find under the seat, by the way) and its Loler and safety certificates.
JCB is the world’s largest supplier of telescopic handlers, and they are used widely across the waste and recycling industry but sometimes in an unsafe manner. We don’t want operators not to wear lap-belts or to lift loads in a dangerous manner.
Waste and recycling plant is often used with elements called attachments, common examples being buckets and selector grabs. But is the right attachment being used for the job? If it isn’t, our LiveLink tags make that clear. And they can help plant managers to locate lost or stolen equipment.
Some people are fearful of the growing role of automation in our industry or even of ‘spies in the cab’. There will always be cynics and those who are opposed to change, but if a piece of technology makes a machine or a process safer, then why wouldn’t you use it? You cannot put a price on a life.
JCB has learnt, from experience, that the key to introducing new technology is to take a softly, softly approach and to be inclusive. Plant managers should involve operators at all stages. Rewards can be introduced, for example for efficiently carrying out daily safety checks. They are far more effective than punishments.
The technology is not an add-on and far less is it ‘big brother’. It is a great way of driving behavioural change. And it puts the operator, who traditionally has had a strong influence on what machines are purchased and how they are run, right at the centre of using equipment more safely. That has to be good.
JCB is not a training company. Nobody asked us to do this, but we felt that it was the right thing. ‘Wastewise’ is a tool – one of many. And we are still learning.
Our industry, which has seen an unprecedented volume of growth and acquisitions in the past four to five years, still has a long way to go in terms of work practices, culture and regulatory environments.
Waste and recycling gets far too many brick-bats from people who are ignorant of even basic facts – for example, about the UK’s looming energy crisis.
David Banks is general manager for the waste and recycling sector at JCB