Safety in a disposal facility starts from the
time the driver enters the site until exiting.
Every day, residential and commercial refuse route drivers take to the street to collect the 250 million tons of waste generated in the US annually. They navigate highways, side streets, parking lots, alleys, and other customer locations in an effort to safely and efficiently complete their daily routes and pick up America’s garbage. There is a significant amount of emphasis placed on safety training to help the driver identify, prevent, and otherwise avoid accidents or injuries while out in our communities. Given that 90% of the refuse driver’s day is spent “on the street,” the emphasis on safety issues while on route is certainly appropriate. There is another component to the driver’s day that also needs to be considered to help ensure that the driver makes it home to his or her family safely at the end of each work shift. This component is the time the driver spends each day in the disposal facility. Roughly 10% of a driver’s day is spent at the disposal facility or landfill. The driver is required to weigh in at the scale house and then carefully proceed to the working face to dispose of the load. There are many hazards to be aware of from the time the refuse driver enters the landfill facility until the time he or she exits.
General Safety Practices
Smoking—Smoking should be avoided and is generally prohibited as a rule or policy in most landfills and other types of waste disposal facilities. There is an abundance of flammable and potentially explosive materials in a landfill facility that could be ignited by flame or spark. A driver should extinguish any smoking materials upon entering the site. Drivers should always use the vehicle ashtray and never throw hot embers from smoking materials out the window of the vehicle. Failure to follow these basic guidelines can result in landfill fires, which, depending on the situation, can be highly problematic and difficult to contain and extinguish.
Fires in the workface can spread rapidly and cause severe injury or death. A landfill fire can also cause catastrophic damage to the facility, equipment, and customer vehicles. If the fire goes subterranean it can burn for years and be nearly impossible to extinguish without incurring significant expense.
Explosions are also possible in a landfill as a result of methane gas generation and migration. Methane gas is a byproduct of decomposing waste and is highly explosive if concentrations exceed the LEL. The acronym LEL refers to the “lower explosive limit” of the gases. The LEL is expressed as a percentage, and means the volume percent of vapor (or gas) in air (Nordin 2003). For example, methane has an LEL of about 5% by volume, or 50,000 ppm. Three things must be present for a fire to occur. There must be a fuel source (methane), an oxidizer (the oxygen in the air), and an ignition source (cigarette or other spark/flame). All possible sources of ignition should be extinguished prior to entering a landfill. Smoking and other sources of spark or ignition should be avoided until after exiting the facility.
|Photos: Brian D. McAllister
Speed limit—Facility owners generally post speed limit signs at the entrance to the landfill facility. The posted speed limits are often ignored by customers. As a result, many preventable accidents occur because of speeds that are unreasonable or not prudent for the roadway conditions. Drivers traveling too fast can lose control of their truck on uneven road surfaces and either hit another customer vehicle or exit the access road and roll their truck over in the stormwater ditch or worse. Landfill access roads are normally constructed of onsite materials and capped with stone or crushed rock. The roads are typically narrow and, unless maintained regularly by landfill personnel, become rough and uneven and will “washboard” due to the heavy truck traffic. Facility roads also frequently have many bends, turns, and steep grades for accessing the workface. During inclement weather, these roads can become slippery and impede a driver’s safe access to and from the workface. To help minimize the dangers associated with the various roadway surfaces and conditions encountered in a landfill facility, a driver should always observe the posted speed limit. If speed limit signs are not posted, a reasonable and prudent speed for drivers to proceed should be no greater than 15 mph. Traveling faster than 15 mph creates an unnecessary safety risk for the driver and for other customers.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) —Personal protective equipment is worn to minimize exposure to specific occupational hazards. The risk of these hazards is compounded during dawn, dusk, or inclement weather—times at which drivers become even less visible to other customers and equipment operators. Every driver or customer entering a landfill facility should be required to wear basic minimum levels of PPE. The absolute minimum required safety PPE should include the following:
- High-visibility vest or outer wear (preferably high-visibility yellow/chartreuse with reflective tape)
- Leather upper, steel-toe/shank boots
- Safety glasses with side shield
- Leather gloves
This list of PPE can help prevent and minimize the impact of occupational hazards that are likely to occur in a landfill. Landfills are busy facilities with a large amount of activity going on at any given time. Visibility is often impaired by dusty conditions, traffic congestion, piles of waste, lighting, and other visual barriers or impediments. A simple task such as securing a rolloff door in preparation to dump or rolling up a tarp can result in severe injury or death if the driver is not clearly visible to other customers or equipment operators.
High visibility vests have the potential to significantly reduce the likelihood of accidents and are strongly encouraged for all drivers and customers using landfill facilities. Many waste companies and public entities that own and operate landfills now require customers to utilize and wear high-visibility vests and other PPE prior to entering the disposal area or exiting their vehicle. High-visibility safety vests save lives and are strongly encouraged.
Steel-toe and leather upper boots are necessary to prevent puncture and other related foot injuries. Heavy objects have the potential to fall from the load while opening rolloff box doors or tailgates and strike a driver’s foot. Sharp objects can cut a driver’s lower leg or ankles while outside the vehicle. Leather upper boots help mitigate this risk. Steel-toe boots with leather uppers reduce the risk of potential serious foot and ankle injuries and are highly recommended.
A hardhat is another piece of PPE that is recommended while in the landfill. A driver should always wear a hardhat while out of the collection vehicle. Injury from flying objects and other hazards can be minimized if wearing a properly fitted and secured hardhat. To improve driver visibility, it is recommended that the hardhat be a high-visibility color such as safety yellow or chartreuse.
Safety glasses are an often-overlooked piece of PPE to refuse route drivers. Safety glasses with side shields help protect the driver’s eyes from blowing dust and debris. This is especially a problem on windy days or when opening the tailgate on collection vehicles.
Airborne liquids can also be a hazard in a landfill environment. Landfill equipment is routinely compacting waste in close proximity to the dumping area. It is not uncommon for a compactor wheel to run over and crush a small container or bucket containing unknown liquids and splatter the contents around the dumping area. Safety glasses with side shields will help protect a driver’s eyes from hazards that might be associated with these blowing or airborne hazards.
Leather gloves help prevent the kinds of cuts and abrasions that are inherent with waste industry occupational hazards. Leather gloves also help prevent punctures, burns and protect the driver’s hands from contact with chemicals or other harmful substances.
Scanning of Conditions
The first thing a driver should do when arriving at the workface is to scan the area for other vehicles, customers outside their vehicles, and vehicle hazards and determine immediately if a spotter is present to direct traffic and assign a dumping slot or position.
Spotters are used at many landfills to direct traffic, assign customers to a dumping position, and monitor for unacceptable material that might enter the facility. The spotter is on foot and in a very dangerous position walking among and around the constant truck traffic and heavy equipment. Know where the spotter is at all times.
The spotter should direct vehicle traffic into the dump position from in front of the customer vehicle and not behind the vehicle. If the spotter is behind the truck while backing, stop and do not continue to back until the spotter is forward of the driver’s door. Spotters could potentially fall down while behind a backing vehicle and, if unnoticed, could be run over, resulting in severe injury or death.
If you do not have visual contact with the spotter, stop and do not proceed until visual contact has been re-established.
This same principle applies to visual impairments in general. If, for any reason (dust, rain, fog), there is an inability to see clearly behind and around the vehicle, stop and do not proceed forward or backward until the impairment has been remediated. This practice is not only for the safety of the driver but also for the safety of other customers and employees of the landfill facility.
Safe and Level Dumping Position
Whether being assigned a dumping position by a spotter or selecting a position without assistance, a driver has the ultimate responsibility for determining an appropriate dumping spot. A firm and level dumping spot is important for safely dumping most collection vehicles. This holds especially true for vehicles that lift the body into a raised position to discharge the load. For vehicles that push or extrude the load out without raising the body, this is not as critical.
To reduce the risk of rollover, always select a dumping spot that is relatively level and firmly compacted. A firm and level dump spot will significantly reduce the risk of a vehicle rollover that could result in serious injury or death for the driver as well as other customers and employees of the landfill. When backed into position, inspect the underfoot conditions beneath the vehicle. If the vehicle sinks in on one side or otherwise appears unstable, reposition the vehicle until it is on firm ground and relatively level. Do not raise the body of a collection vehicle that is tilting to one side or the other. Doing so could shift the center of gravity to one side resulting in a vehicle roll over. Always position the collection vehicle in a firm and level position prior to attempting to discharge vehicle contents.
Operators of landfills prefer to keep the disposal or workface contained and as small as possible to minimize exposed areas and the resulting daily cover requirements. While this might be good for the landfill operator, it can create potential safety issues and productivity concerns for the driver. Maintaining a small turnaround and working area often results in trucks disposing of their loads in very close proximity to one another. Positioning trucks too close together during the dumping process creates specific safety concerns.
The distance or spacing in between vehicles utilizing the landfill should be no less than 10 feet. Ten feet of separation between vehicles provides the driver plenty of room to walk in between the trucks. On occasion, especially with rolloff trucks, the container door can unexpectedly swing open while dumping and, if positioned too close, fall against the truck in the next dump slot or, even worse, strike a driver who is outside his or her vehicle. Maintaining 10 feet of separation helps alleviate this hazard while also helping to reduce the risk of drivers being run over by another vehicle.
The most dangerous vehicle that enters the landfill to dispose of waste is the 18-wheel tractor-trailer end-dump truck. There are more fatalities associated with dumping these vehicles in a landfill than all other customer vehicles combined. Eighteen-wheel end-dump trucks are highly susceptible to rolling over in high winds on uneven dumping surfaces or when shifting of the load occurs while in the dump cycle. It is highly recommended when utilizing the landfill facility to allow 18-wheel end-dump tractor-trailers to dump by themselves with no other vehicles within 50 feet of the tractor-trailer. These trucks, while unstable, can dump their loads relatively quickly and should be afforded the opportunity to dispose of the load without other customers getting too close or crowding around their dump slot. Never dump adjacent to an 18-wheel end-dump tractor-trailer. Doing so puts the driver in extreme risk of severe injury and potential death should the tractor-trailer roll over.
All of these concerns and recommendations utilize and provide a basic common-sense approach to driver safety in a landfill environment. The recommendations are based on 25 years of practical hands-on experience working in landfills and dealing with the consequences of each of these potential safety concerns. A landfill is a very dangerous environment, but, with some common sense, a constant awareness of your surroundings, and following a few basic safety practices, it can be a pleasant, safe experience for the driver, customer and employees of the facility.
Author's Bio: Brian McAllister is a principal of Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc.
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