As economic and public support for recycling continues to grow, so too have the risks and hazards. Automation has helped, but the industry seems to have lost ground with 10 MRF workplace fatalities in 2011. As we push into 2012, is it fair to ask if safety is still on track?
Yes, it’s a fair question if the incidents are kept in proper perspective, according to Susan Eppes, president of EST Solutions Inc. in Houston, TX. “We haven’t had a year like that in a long time,” says Eppes. “But last year a lot of new MRFs came onboard because of the growth in the single-stream market and the commodities markets. Often they don’t have sophisticated safety programs, or they are smaller operators that don’t have full-time safety staff, so they can’t do safety classes.”
Even when a facility has a full-time safety administrator, the need for vigilance remains high. As a consultant, Eppes has done safety audits nationwide and has observed a number of recurring problems at MRFs. They start with the most simple of explanations for accidents-random errors and mistakes, to the most complex-preventable behaviors, poorly designed facilities, and unsafe work environments. “Maybe it’s that the manufacturer’s instructions didn’t get communicated correctly or maybe the people weren’t trained properly, or somebody saw something that they thought was OK and picked up a bad habit,” Eppes explains. “That’s why you have to create observation programs so you have people on the floor watching the staff. You can’t just write the rules; you have to go out and enforce them. It’s important because people that violate the rules create risky situations for everybody. Especially in maintenance programs, such as when a screen or baler gets jammed and somebody has to go in and clean up, or for whatever reason the machine has to be taken out of its operation mode.”
Many Vendors, One Reviewer
For new facilities and those with new equipment and new staff, Eppes notes that a hazard assessment of the entire system is essential, and it must include the installer, equipment manufacturers, and the operator. “If the operator buys some equipment from various manufacturers, whoever puts it together has to review the facility as a total system, not just one piece of equipment here and there,” explains Eppes. “So the hazards can be defined and corrected.”
Such advice could fall under the category of “best practices,” and Eppes notes that guidelines for safety best practices will be published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Eppes is chairman of the ANSI 245.41 committee, which addresses MRF operations. “We’re creating a set of standards that really allows us to police ourselves,” says Eppes. “We have one for balers and compactors, and the new transfer station guidelines will be published this year, while the MRF guidelines should be published in 2014. Each one of those is best practices for observing safety regulations and design requirements, such as lockout hardware.”
The design requirements for equipment are constantly changing, according to Gary Brooks, director of sales for NEXGEN products at Marathon Equipment Co. in Vernon, AL. “We participate in ANSI training and awareness classes and the standards are constantly evolving,” says Brooks. “They’re put together by industry professionals, manufacturers, and operators who focus on how to safely run a facility. And the process has benefitted from decades of industry data. Safety has improved on all equipment with things like access points for cleaning, ladders, and safety rails in cages. If you make it easier to clean out a machine, it can become safer and safety is key.”
Design and engineering have vastly improved the MRF environment, adds James Robbins, chief engineer for MRF products at Marathon. But the important link is still the operators. “With the human factor, you will always have variables,” says Robbins. “So it’s a basic tenet to keep all safety devices intact and functioning properly and make sure the staff follows all manufacturer’s directions and instructions. And now the operators are taking more initiative to keep up with these safety procedures, and we’re educating the owners and operators because we can’t be there all the time.”
Owners are indeed taking the initiative, notes Jerry Sjogren, safety director at E.L. Harvey and Sons, Inc. in Westborough, MA. Harvey and Sons operate as waste collectors, and the company’s Westborough operations include a material recovery facility, a construction-and-demolition recycling facility, a transfer station, and a paper recycling facility. “I think we are starting to see a generational shift where safety is more important,” says Sjogren. “Obviously the industry never wanted to see anybody get hurt, but in the 1990s it was just accepted that this is what we do and how we do it, and somebody is going to get hurt because it’s the nature of the beast. Now we are seeing a shift to safety being very important, and I can’t speak for everybody, but in many places you see a philosophy of safety is number one, and job one, so that’s very exciting.”
Automation and safer equipment has contributed much in the way of preventing accidents. Sjogren recalls that in the early 1990s it was common to have people working on tipping floors sorting cardboard and other materials of the waste stream and working in close proximity to equipment such as front-end loaders and trucks. But automation has helped to get people off the tipping floors and he’s starting to see a trend where MRFs are removing spotters from tipping floors and putting them up high in protected areas.
Slips, Trips, and Falls
“It’s amazing how far we’ve come, and I think housekeeping is another thing,” Sjogren adds. “We’ve seen a shift towards orderly areas, and certainly an emphasis on housekeeping that eliminates some of the slips, trips, and falls hazards, which are some of the biggest accidents we have in this industry. So certainly that has been an improvement in having a controlled area, so that’s very helpful. I think were an exciting time with the technology.”
While ANSI standards for transfer stations and material recovery facilities are currently being revised, manufacturers are also finding more stringent regulations if they sell equipment in Europe, according to Jim Webb, engineering manager with Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) in Eugene, OR. “The new machinery directive came out in 2010,” says Webb. “Shipping equipment to Europe requires that you are compliant with CE requirements. As part of our ongoing effort to improve safety, we did an exhaustive risk and hazard assessment of all of our equipment to ensure CE compliance.”
One area of major concern both in the US and in Europe is the use of safety interlock switches. “If an interlocked door is opened while the machine is operating, it disengages the switch and shuts down the equipment so workers can safely enter,” says Webb. Although European regulations differ from domestic regulations, both require interlocks. “BHS meets or beats what’s currently out there in regulation,” Webb says.
Flying Above OSHA’s Radar
Machine guarding is another area of concern. A few years ago a rotating shaft without a protective guard wasn’t on OSHA’s radar, but now inspectors are starting to issue citations when such conditions are discovered, Webb says. “We have adopted enclosed shafts to make sure workers are safe.”
Equipment ergonomics also affects worker health and safety. “There are no sharp edges on our conveyors to injure workers that lean against them,” Webb notes. “The conveyors are angled up slightly at the edges to allow workers to sweep material into the drop chutes. Drop chutes are deep and wide, so larger objects can drop down easily. Film pickup hoods placed over the conveyors also allow workers an ergonomic solution for removing plastic film from the product stream.”
Engineers at BHS have responded to safety concerns about the general environment of MRFs by providing safe access to equipment. “We have focused on service access to equipment-wide walkways, continuous handrails, and wraparound access platforms to provide ready and safe access to routine maintenance points,” says Webb. “And we also have ladder safety gates. So, after a worker has exited the ladder, the gates swing shut, creating a barrier that meets OSHA standards.”
According to Susan Eppes, the engineering decisions by BHS and other manufacturers make a great example of how the waste industry is working with government agencies. “We’ve partnered with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the research branch of OSHA, and many times OSHA uses the ANSI standard when there’s an absence of an existing standard. So these are voluntary guidelines that have been accepted by industry leaders.”
Those guidelines will be getting stricter, says Chris Bova, operations manager at Van Dyk Baler in Stamford, CT. Before joining Van Dyk, Bova worked in the automotive industry and observed that typically in manufacturing safety becomes much stricter and tougher to adhere to as the industry evolves. For engineers and designers of the equipment, the task becomes one of modifying the designs and working within those requirements to make it easier for operators to adhere to the safety procedures. “Engineer have to come up with new and better designs to accommodate safety requirements,” explains Bova. “One of the things that we’ve done is to go to a new style of safety lock switch that is much more difficult for the customer to bypass. You can’t just jury rig some wires and keep the system running.”
Jury rigging or tampering with safety equipment isn’t endemic, but it’s no surprise to find safety features disabled, and Bova notes that Van Dyk employees have to be cautious when they’re working in the field. “A lot of it is training and being aware of the machine. We haven’t had any injuries on our equipment, but we’ve had customers that have had individuals injured because they didn’t properly respect the equipment.”
The good news is that many customers do respect the equipment, and also offer suggestions for improvements. Bova cites an instance where customer feedback about better access to screens resulted in additional ladders and mounting rails, so the operators can secure safety harnesses to rails that will support their weight during a fall. With the addition of the ladders, Van Dyk added safety gates so that the ladders and machine couldn’t be accessed unintentionally.
Sometimes OSHA guidelines can motivate design updates. Belly pans underneath conveyors are a requirement to protect operators from the belts, but the pans often measure over 2 by 6 feet in length, making them heavy and unwieldy. Van Dyk redesigned the pans by adding hinges and quick-release locks, so the pans swing down and don’t need to be supported during maintenance.
Following Safety to the Letter
“If you can make the safety seamless with what the operator has to do, it will be adhered to,” says Bova. “But as soon as the operator has to go too far and it’s too much effort, they start going around the safety designs.” If Van Dyk field service staffers see jury rigging or other safety issues, the company issues a formal letter describing the problem. Bova adds that most operators appreciate the notification and respond positively.
Operators don’t necessarily have to wait for a formal letter to uncover safety risks, says David Biderman, general counsel and director, safety, National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington, DC. Over the past 10 years NSWMA has developed a safety program for MRFs that includes videos, training and safety manuals and various presentations. Biderman believes the association’s efforts have helped to make the industry safer, and he cites data that reflects a significant decline overall in the number of worker fatalities associated with the industry since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began monitoring MRF sites as a subcategory within the waste industry.
“There has been a constant rise in safety awareness and an increasing recognition of the importance of operational safety at all levels of the industry including recycling facilities,” says Biderman. “Many NSWMA members post safety information on a frequent basis including material that we distribute. They have regular safety meetings and they buy equipment with safety in mind and are constantly training and retraining employees.” Those NSWMA members have also maintained good communications with equipment manufacturers, and for Biderman it indicates a strong partnership between the buyers of equipment and the manufacturers that makes this industry unique.