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Waste and Recycling Risk Insights: Common Occupational Health Risks

Working in the waste and recycling industry, like all jobs, carries with it a certain degree of risk. However, the waste and recycling industry has a particularly high level of risk, stemming from the chemical and volatile nature of its work, which constantly places its workers in dangerous situations.

Minimising the industry’s high level of risk to keep your employees safe is not difficult. It all starts with identifying the following common occupational health risks that threaten your employees, and devising strategies to limit exposure.

Bioaerosols

When your employees handle any biodegradable wastes, such as compost, green and food waste, they expose themselves to bioaerosols.

Bioaerosols are a natural by-product of decaying organic matter. When green waste breaks down, microbes grow quickly in the warm, moist environment. Collecting and handling that waste causes the microbes to become airborne, creating bioaerosols—microbes suspended with dust in the air—which workers then breathe in while working.

Although bioaerosols are naturally present in the air, high concentrations can be damaging, and HSE-funded research found that workers in close proximity to waste composting processes could be exposed to bioaerosols between 10 and 1,000 times greater than in ambient air. Repeated inhalation of compost bioaerosols in large concentrations can aggravate the immune system and lead to asthma or other respiratory diseases such as extrinsic allergic alveolitis.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) 2002 (2003 in Northern Ireland) defines bioaerosols as a substance hazardous to health. You should assess your business’ bioaerosol exposure and take the following actions to lower it:

  • Identify areas of your waste handling facility where bioaerosol concentrations are highest.
  • List the processes and activities that are most likely to create bioaerosols, such as aerating actively composting material.
  • Avoid handling bioaerosol-containing material during certain activities or weather that may boost bioaerosol exposure.
  • Provide employees with respiratory protective equipment and train them in its proper use.

Discarded Needles

Despite clear laws dictating the disposal of clinical devices, workers may still be exposed to discarded needles and other sharps during waste and recycling collection and sorting. The actual risk depends on several factors:

  • Whether the needle contains blood residue
  • Whether the needle user was infected with hepatitis or HIV viruses
  • How much infected material enters the bloodstream
  • How infective the material is

To help your workers steer clear of needlestick and sharps injuries, provide rigid containers like wheelie bins instead of plastic sacks, and rely on non-manual waste handling procedures. If you cannot avoid manual procedures, require workers to wear puncture-resistant clothing to shield their hands, arms and legs.

Personal Hygiene

Statistics measuring lost working time attributable to poor personal hygiene are unreliable, but the link between the two is solid. Waste and recycling workers’ good personal hygiene is essential for preventing infections and other ill health caused by working with waste and reduces overall sick leave. Antiseptic hand wipes are not enough—your employees need you to do the following:

  • Design your facilities so they can be easily cleaned according to the amount of waste, dust and other residues deposited during normal operations.
  • Provide quality washing facilities for employees.
  • Train workers to understand the importance of hygiene and utilise the available facilities.

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)

MSDs are any injuries, damage or disorders of the joints or other tissues in the upper/lower limbs or the back. They account for about one-third of all reported injuries in the waste and recycling industry, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Factors that contribute to MSDs include load weight, receptacle type and design, and collection frequency. Conduct a risk assessment to determine which systems of work are most likely to increase your employees’ chances of suffering a manual handling injury.

Noise

Everyday work duties in the waste and recycling industry are noisy. Without adequate control, employees may be exposed to high levels of noise and risk hearing damage. To comply with the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (2006 in Northern Ireland), eliminate hazardous noise wherever possible, control noise exposure using engineering means so far as is reasonably practicable, and provide adequate protective equipment such as ear defenders.

Slips and Trips

All workplaces are subject to slips and trips—it is one of the most widespread workplace hazards. Luckily, effective solutions are often simple and cheap, and can improve working conditions and workplace productivity. Heed these general tips to keep your employees on firm ground:

  • Eliminate traffic on rough ground where possible.
  • Level rough ground and clearly designate pedestrian routes.
  • Improve drainage to remove standing water.
  • Clean up spills immediately.
  • Minimise surface slipperiness with suitable floor treatments.

Asbestos

All types of asbestos can be dangerous if disturbed. Asbestos waste should be disposed of properly, but employees may still encounter incorrectly or illegally disposed-of asbestos. If your employees could potentially encounter asbestos waste, follow all asbestos regulations, offer asbestos awareness training to help them identify dangerous materials and ensure they follow safe systems of work.

Guard Your Business

These risks are just a sampling of the vast array facing your employees. Because not every waste and recycling business faces exactly the same risks, you need a bespoke policy tailored to your organisation’s specific threats. Trust the insurance professionals at Sirelark Risk Services to provide you with industry-specific guidance and a policy perfectly tailored to your needs.

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The content of this Risk Insights is of general interest and is not intended to apply to specific circumstances. It does not purport to be a comprehensive analysis of all matters relevant to its subject matter. The content should not, therefore, be regarded as constituting legal advice and not be relied upon as such. In relation to any particular problem which they may have, readers are advised to seek specific advice. Further, the law may have changed since first publication and the reader is cautioned accordingly. © 2013 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.

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