The tabloids delight in stories of ‘health and safety gone mad’, with tales of supposed rules issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Many can be dismissed as hyperbole. What cannot be ignored, though, are the provisional statistics on fatal injuries in the workplace, which are published by the HSE each July.
For the waste industry these usually make for sobering reading, but the good news is that for 2015-16 the number of deaths actually fell. The bad news is that the reporting period was to the end of March, so exclude the recent deaths on a waste site in Birmingham in July and in Milton Keynes in August, which almost certainly means the fatality rate for the industry is likely to be back on an upward trend for 2016-17.
However, the statistics compare favourably with those in Europe. Data for 2013 shows the UK rate for work-related deaths for all workplaces was 0.51 per 100,000 employees, which was lower than those of many other EU member states, including the large economies of Germany (0.81), Italy (1.24), Spain (1.55) and France (2.94).
The startling fact is that, in the UK, only agriculture has a higher fatality rate than the waste industry. What makes it a dangerous environment? People, vehicles and machines can be a deadly combination. Indeed, many of the fatalities and injuries in the waste industry relate to moving vehicles or equipment.
But there are other factors at play such as hazardous substances, slips, trips and falls, fire hazards and diseases linked to the workplace environment.
Workers are not the only casualties. The general public also feature in the list of fatalities and casualties linked to waste management activities, although for a variety of reasons not all deaths are included in the HSE statistics. For example, the Glasgow bin lorry crash in December 2014 that killed six pedestrians and injured 10 others was not included in the statistics for that year.
One thing that would surprise people outside the industry is that the public also pose a threat to workers. Most councils will have records of waste collection crews being subject to verbal and physical abuse. Individuals can be annoyed when they are held up in traffic behind the refuse lorry or when their recycling is rejected for collection.
Some of the more bizarre incidents were picked up in a recent article in the Daily Mail (26 August), where collection workers reported being grabbed by the throat, chased down the street, threatened with a gun and followed by a man with a Samurai sword.
What can be done to make waste management safer? Representatives from the industry came together to form the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) forum, which works to provide information, identify solutions and stimulate action across the industry to ensure the health, safety and well-being of people working in the industry and those affected by its activities.
The commitment to workplace competence is designed to support the industry in raising staff competency levels and reducing accidents and occupational ill-health. There is a wealth of guidance material available on the WISH website (www.hse.gov.uk/waste/ wish.htm).
It is clear that training is at the heart of safety. Induction training, regular refresher courses and competence checks, along with formal qualifications, are key to keeping waste management sites safe. This must be coupled with the implementation and enforcement of effective workplace policies and procedures.
People, vehicles and machines can be a deadly combination. Indeed, many of the fatalities and injuries in the waste industry relate to moving vehicles or equipment
There is a range of vocational qualifications for new entrants through to operatives and managers that are available to help staff build skills, knowledge and understanding relevant to their area of work.
The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management/Wamitab Competence Scheme includes health and safety as one of its underpinning themes, and includes the primary competence qualifications that are essential for those taking on Technically Competent Manager responsibilities.
Health and safety run like a thread through all the qualifications, tests and competence checks in the industry. In addition, given the stories of violence against waste workers already mentioned, it will be obvious why conflict management forms part of the curriculum for some qualifications. Fires at waste plants have frequently made the headlines in the past few years and so the qualifications include a focus on site management to help mitigate the risk.
It could be argued that safety is just a matter of common sense but, in reality, there also needs to be an element of compliance. In essence, it is about keeping the balance right and ensuring that safety management systems are reviewed regularly.
Chris James is the chief executive of Wamitab