Accidents and injuries in the waste management sector

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Karla Van den Broek, Prevent

Introduction

The waste management sector is an important employment sector. However, workers in the waste management sector are faced with various risks. They are exposed to risks such as manual handling (manipulating waste), working postures (standing), vibrations (driving vehicles, work equipment), chemical substances, biological agents, work organisation (pace of work, job control), mechanical hazards (cuts, bruises).The data and figures below provide information on exposure to risks and accidents at work and indicate that the waste management sector must be considered as a high-risk sector. Health risks due to chemical substances, noise, biological agents, vibrations, etc. are not discussed.

Risks of accidents and injuries in the waste management sector

The risks in the waste management sector are linked to various processes such as street cleaning, refuse collection, recycling, etc. and the related tasks. An overview of the processes and the hazards of each of these processes is available in Waste management.

In general the risks for health and safety of the workers can be related to: - the nature of the waste (chemical and biological risks) - the work process (noise, vibration, risk of falls, cuts, musculoskeletal disorders) - the work organisation (due to traffic, diverse simultaneous activities, workload difficult to plan in advance, etc.).

Workers in the waste management sector feel that their health and safety is at risk. Data form the European Working Conditions Survey 2010 show that 36.9% agree with this statement and 33.9% feel that their health is negatively affected by their work. These percentages are higher than for all other sectors including for industry (Table 1).

Table 1 – Health and well-being (%) – EWCS 2010

Average for all sectors Industry Waste management - NACE E (n=245)
Yes, My health and safety is at risk because of my work 24.2 33.1 36.9
Yes, My work affects my health negatively 25.0 33.5 33.9

Source: EWCS [1]

Physical risk factors

The data from EWCS show that workers in the waste management sector are often exposed to risks such as high and low temperatures, vibrations, noise and infectious materials (Table 2). Regarding noise and vibrations, it must be noted that about 8% of the workers in the waste management state that they are 'all the time' exposed to these risks (Figure 1). Some of these risk factors are more present in one stage of the waste management process than in others. Exposure to whole body vibrations is seen as an important risk factor in the stage of refuse collection. Not only for the truck driver but also for the collectors while sitting in the refuse truck or standing on the riding steps at the back of the truck [2].

Contact with infectious materials is a risk factor during the stage of waste collection and handling/recycling operations. It is expected that many waste materials containing infection hazards enter the domestic waste chain and infection risk may be more difficult to control than during the collection and disposal of clinical wastes. Low levels of exposure to infectious material is possible during waste collection and transfer operations but more significant exposures could occur on picking lines at recycling stations handling general household waste [3].

Table 2 – Physical risk factors - Exposure to... at least 1/4 of the time (%) – EWCS 2010

Average for all sectors Industry Waste management - NACE E (n=245)
Vibrations from hand tools, machinery 22.5 47.5 38.4
Noise 29.0 49.6 41.6
High temperatures 24.8 34.4
Low temperatures 25.2 50.2
Smoke, fumes, dust 17.2 33.5
Vapours 10.6 15.6
Handling chemical substances 15.3 22.2 22.4
Tobacco smoke 11.4 16.2 19.3
Infectious materials 11.3 9.9 31.1

Source: EWCS [1]

Figure 1: Exposure to physical factors in the waste management sector – EWCS 2010

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Source: EWCS [1]

Workload and manual handling

The work exposure data from EWCS show that workers in the waste management sector are highly exposed to risks due to the workload and manual handling. More than 50% state that their job involves tiring or painful positions during at least a quarter of their working time. Almost 60% are confronted with repetitive hand or arm movements and almost 75% say that they are standing during at least quarter of their working time. These figures are higher than the overall numbers and the results for industry (Table 3).

Studies on specific work situations in the waste management sector have underpinned the fact that workers are confronted with a high workload. A Canadian study on refuse collection carried out an ergonomic analysis and revealed that refuse collectors handle each day 16.000 kg of waste and walk on average 11 km. Furthermore, the work demands a high frequency of mounting and dismounting the truck, lifting and handling waste, bending and other painful work postures [4].

Refuse collection systems equipped with automated systems and the use of containers on wheels can reduce the exposure to lifting or carrying heavy loads. However, also this type of refuse collection often requires the use of excessive force, pushing and pulling. A study on the biomechanical workload while lifting an empty four-wheeled container from the street to the sidewalk showed that peak compression forces on the low back exceeded the NIOSH limit of 3400 Newton by far. The same kind of results were found for lifting of bags, bins, and drums [2].

Table 3 - Workload and manual handling - Does your job involve… at least ¼ of the time (%) – EWCS 2010

Average for all sectors Industry Waste management - NACE E (n=245)
Tiring or painful positions 15.7 21.7 52.5
Lifting or moving people 8.9 3.0 2.5
Carrying or moving heavy loads 33.5 49.4 44.1
Standing 71.1 74.2
Repetitive hand or arm movements 32.9 40.7 59.2

Source: EWCS [1]

Pace of work and work intensity

Data from the EWCS survey on work pace and work intensity indicate that a lot of workers in the waste management sector work at high speed (Table 4) or that their pace of work is influenced by demands from colleagues, customers, etc. and direct control from their boss (Table 5). However, it seems that the workers in the waste management are to a lesser degree influenced by these factors than in other sectors.

Table 4 – Work intensity - Does your job involve… at least ¼ of the time (%) – EWCS 2010

Average for all sectors Industry Waste management - NACE E (n=245)
Working at very high speed 59.2 66.1 51.9
Working to tight deadlines 62.0 69.2 55.3

Source: EWCS [1]


Table 5 – Work pace - My pace of work is dependent on… (%) – EWCS 2010

Average for all sectors Industry Waste management - NACE E (n=245)
The work done by colleagues 39.3 47.7 47.5
Direct demands from people (customers, passengers, pupils, patients, etc.) 67.0 51.2 45.0
Production or performance targets 39.7 53.4 28.5
The speed of a machine or movement of a product 17.5 31.1 24.6
The direct control of my boss 34.2 39.6 42.6

Source: EWCS [1]


Accidents at work

Incidence of accidents at work

Data show [5] that in the sector of Water supply, sewerage, waste management and remediation activities (NACE sector E) more than 50.000 accidents at work occur (EU-27). These figures remained more or less the same in the period 2008-2010 and they are not in line with the overall downward trend (all sectors). The total number of accidents at work in the EU-27 is in decline but the waste management sector shows a stable or even upward trend.

The figures demonstrate the fact that the waste management sector can be considered as a high-risk sector. The sector represents 1.0% of the workforce of all non-financial business activities [6] but the sector accounts for 2.5% of the accidents at work (2010, see last column of Table 6). This means that the risk of an accident at work is 2.5 times higher in the waste management sector compared to the average for all other sectors.

Figures on the incidence rates (number of accidents at work per 100 000 workers) support the fact that the waste management sector represents higher risks than average. The incidence rate for non-fatal accidents is on average 1,583.15. In the waste management sector the incidence rate amounts to 3,438.16. The incidence rate for fatal accidents is almost three times higher than the average (Table 7). Higher incidence rates for accidents at work in the waste management sector can also be found in other studies. A review on occupational hazards in the solid waste management sector [7] refers to studies reporting a higher risk of an accident at work compared with a baseline population ranging from 1.3 times higher in Romania, 5.6 times higher in Denmark to 10 times higher in the USA. UK figures for 2011/2012 show that although accidents at work show an overall downward trend waste and recycling remains a high-risk industry. It accounts for only about 0.6% of the employees in Britain but it accounts for 2.8% of reported injuries to employees. Refuse and salvage occupations have the second highest overall injury rate of any occupation. Only coalmine operatives have a higher rate [8].

Table 6 - Total number of accidents at work with more than 3 days of absence and fatal accidents at work – Comparison between Sector Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities and All non-financial business economy – 2008 – 2010 – EU27

Total - All Non-financial business activities (a) Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities (b) % of water supply, sewerage, waste management in Total
2008 2009 2010 2008 2009 2010 2008 2009 2010
(1) Total 2,803,064 2,339,934 2,182,419 54,607 53,046 54,586 1.95 2.27 2.50
(2) More than 3 days lost 2,337,094 2,179,707 52,963 54,492 2.27 2.50
(3) Fatal 3,110 2,840 2,712 100 83 94 3.22 2.92 3.47

(a) NACE: sections B to J and L to N and division 95
(b) NACE: section E
(1) Total number of accidents at work with more than 3 days of absence and fatal accidents at work
(2) More than 3 days lost (4 days absence or more)
(3) Fatal accidents at work

Source: Eurostat [5]

Table 7 – Number and incidence rate of non-fatal and fatal accidents at work – All NACE and NACE E – 2010 - EU27

Total - All NACE activities NACE Section E Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities
Number Incidence rate Number Incidence rate
Total Non-fatal accidents 3,319,478 1,583.15 54,492 3,438.16
Fatal accidents 4,395 2.1 94 5.93

Source: Eurostat [5]


More detailed figures on the sector of Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities show that most accidents occur in the sub-sector Waste collection, treatment and disposal activities (E 38). This is not surprising since it is the biggest of the four sub-sectors employing almost 60% of the total sector. Water collection (E 36) is the second largest sub-sector employing 28.3%. The other two sub-sectors are much smaller. Sewerage (E 37) accounts for 8.7% of the sector and Remediation activities (E 39) for 3.2% [6]. And although the ranking of the number of accidents at work is similar, it must be noted that the waste collection sub-sector accounts for 60% of employment but more than 70% of the accidents at work occur in this sub-sector (Table 8). This means that the risks in waste collection are even higher than in other sub-sectors of waste management.

Table 8 - Total number of accidents at work with more than 3 days of absence and fatal accidents at work – Comparison between waste management sector (NACE section E) and sub-sectors (NACE divisions E 36, E 37, E 38, E 39) - EU27

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(1) Total number of accidents at work with more than 3 days of absence and fatal accidents at work
(2) More than 3 days lost (4 days absence or more)
(3) Fatal accidents at work

Source: Eurostat [5]

Severity of accidents at work

As for all accidents at work most accidents in the Waste management sector (NACE E) only involve temporary absences (95.4%, n=32.703). Fatal accidents account for 0.3% (n=94) and accidents with permanent incapacity for 4.4% (n=1500, EU-27, 2010). In the sub-sectors the distribution along the severity categories is similar but the Water Collection (NACE E 36) and Remediation activities (NACE E 39) the figures for the severest accidents are higher (Figure 2).

Figure 2 – Distribution (%) of accidents at work by severity - 2010 - EU27

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E Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities
E 36 Water collection, treatment and supply
E 37 Sewerage
E 38 Waste collection, treatment and disposal activities; materials recovery
E 39 Remediation activities and other waste management services
Source: Eurostat [5]

Victims of accidents at work

Most of the victims are situated in the age group of 35 to 54 years. The distribution of accidents at work along the different age groups is represented in Figure 3. This distribution is highly influenced by the number of persons exposed to the risk. Most workers in the sector are also situated in this age group. 65% of the workers in the waste management are between 25 and 49 years old [9].

However, young people are more confronted with accidents at work than their older (and more experienced) colleagues. This is demonstrated by the incidence rates per age group. The average incidence rate for all age groups in the waste management sector is 3,438.16 but in the age group less than 18 years and from 18 to 25 years, the incidence rates are resp. 3,937.15 and 3,616.33 (Table 9). This phenomenon can be observed in all economic sectors. Incidence rates of non-fatal accidence are considerably higher among those aged 18-24 years as compared to the total workforce. Young workers are more vulnerable and there is a direct correlation between accidents at work and experience [10] [11].

Figure 3 – Distribution (%) of non-fatal accidents at work by age group – 2010 - EU27

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E Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities
E 36 Water collection, treatment and supply
E 37 Sewerage
E 38 Waste collection, treatment and disposal activities; materials recovery
E 39 Remediation activities and other waste management services
Source: Eurostat [5]

Table 9 – Number and incidence rate of accidents at work by age group – 2010 - EU27; (Figures in bold: higher than average)

Total - All NACE activities NACE Section E Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities
Number Incidence rate Number Incidence rate
Total 3,319,478 1,583.15 54,492 3,438.16
Less than 18 years 24,043 1,558.16 160 3,937.15
From 18 to 24 years 408,135 2,201.47 3,179 3,616.33
From 25 to 34 years 765,627 1,574.78 10,802 3,402.26
From 35 to 44 years 843,366 1,486.54 16,383 3,690.53
From 45 to 54 years 810,345 1,539.18 15,884 3,377.49
From 55 to 64 years 393,705 1,449.23 7,310 2,959.60
65 years or over 27,223 614.93 269 1,884.64
Unknown 47,033 505

Source: Eurostat [5]

Most victims of accidents at work in the waste management sector are male. This is not surprising in an industrial sector that predominantly employs males. 80% of the workers in the sector are male. But, male workers have a relatively higher risk than female workers. This could possibly explained by the differences in tasks and the associated risk factors. The incidence rate for male workers is 4,032.6 compared to 1,448.1 for females (Table 10)

Table 10 – Number, incidence rate and distribution (%) of non-fatal accidents at work by gender – 2010 - EU27

Total - All NACE activities NACE Section E Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities
Non-fatal accidents at work Employment Non-fatal accidents at work Employment
Number Incidence rate Distribution (%) Distribution (%) Number Incidence rate Distribution (%) Distribution (%)
Total 3,319.478 1,583.2 100 100 54,492 3,438.2 100 100
Males 2,394,242 2,089.1 72.1 52.3 49,212 4,032.6 90.3 80.1
Females 924,700 972.7 27.9 47.7 5,279 1,448.1 9.7 19.9

Source: Eurostat [5]

Type and causes of accidents

Type of injuries
The distribution of accidents at work according to the part of body injured (Table 11) shows that most accidents (about one third) involve injuries to the upper or lower extremities. Wounds and dislocations, strains and sprains are the most common injuries (Table 12).

Table 11 – Number and distribution (%) of accidents at work by part of body injured – 2010 - EU277

Total - All NACE activities NACE Section E Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities


Number Distribution (%) Number Distribution (%)
Head, not further specified 236,429 7.11 4,738 8.68
Neck, inclusive spine and vertebra in the neck 84,561 2.54 1,487 2.72
Back, including spine and vertebra in the back 343,246 10.33 6,125 11.22
Torso and organs, not further specified 132,257 3.98 2,576 4.72
Upper extremities, not further specified 1,292,322 38.88 18,900 34.62
Lower extremities, not further specified 904,014 27.20 17,016 31.17
Whole body and multiple sites, not further specified 98,600 2.97 1,212 2.22
Other parts of body injured, not mentioned above 12,317 0.37 121 0.22
Part of body injured not specified 220,127 6.62 2,411 4.42
Total 3,323,873 100.00 54,586 100.00

Source: Eurostat [5]

Table 12 – Number and distribution (%) of accidents at work by type of injury – 2010 - EU27

Total - All NACE activities NACE Section E Water supply; sewerage, waste management and remediation activities


Number Distribution (%) Number Distribution (%)
Wounds and superficial injuries 1,102,914 33.18 17,012 31.17
Bone fractures 377,710 11.36 5,622 10.30
Dislocations, sprains and strains 982,318 29.55 18,373 33.66
Traumatic amputations (Loss of body parts) 13,392 0.40 152 0.28
Concussions and internal injuries 391,671 11.78 7,604 13.93
Burns, scalds and frostbites 59,262 1.78 693 1.27
Poisonings and infections 17,104 0.51 270 0.49
Drownings and asphyxiations 838 0.03 11 0.02
Effects of sound, vibration and pressure 2,322 0.07 32 0.06
Effects of temperature extremes, light and radiation 1,158 0.03 27 0.05
Shocks 13,921 0.42 87 0.16
Multiple injuries 41,555 1.25 567 1.04
Other not elsewhere mentioned 71,376 2.15 1,324 2.43
Unspecified 248,332 7.47 2,812 5.15
Total 3,323,873 100.00 54,586 100.00


Source: Eurostat [5]

Causes and circumstances
The type of accident at work is highly influenced by the type of job. Waste management includes refuse collection but also recycling and remediation activities and the type of accident strongly relates to the specific tasks that have to be performed. For refuse collectors for instance, transport related accidents are frequent and especially severe. US statistics reported that 70% of fatal accidents among refuse collectors are transport related [2]. The same conclusion can be based on UK statistics. For the whole waste management sector – not only refuse collection – a third of the fatal accidents falls into the category 'struck by vehicles' (see Figure 4) [8]

Looking to overall UK data, types of accidents such as lifting, moving, cutting and trips are most prevalent [12]. In the period from 2007 to 2012, almost half of reported injuries involving over three days of absence in the waste management were due to handling. Handling is a broad category comprising work-related injuries due to strains, sprains, lifting, carrying, pushing or pulling loads, etc. Slips and trips (26%) and being struck by moving or falling objects (10%) were the next most common risk in waste management [8].

Figure 4 - Three day injuries in the waste management – 2007 – 2012 - UK

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Source: HSE [8]

Musculoskeletal disorders

To complement the data on accidents at work, the Health and Safety Executive (UK), also conducted a study based on sickness data (scope 16 local authorities and two private companies; 2007-2008). Results showed that the most common causes of absence were musculoskeletal disorders (22.5%) and stress (22.6%) [13].

The high prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders in the sector can be related to the specific risk factors of the sector

  • biomechanical aspects:
• lifting, pushing and pulling: waste bins, sacs [2].
• working in awkward postures: working with bend back or neck, working in a sustained standing, upright position, e.g. standing at a conveyor belt in recycling centre
• movements: twisting and turning of the trunk, reaching above shoulder height, reaching beyond arm length, reaching below waist height
• repetitive movements, e.g. sorting waste at a high work rhythm
• applying high force, heavy lifting
  • work environment: temperature
  • work equipment and layout of the work station: type of refuse collection vehicle, height of the footboard, type of loading; layout of the conveyor belt in a recycling centre (e.g. height not adapted to the worker, no room for feet); whole body vibration related to the use of refuse collection vehicles, vehicles on dump sites, etc.
  • work organisation: working hours, weight targets, work rhythm [14].

Records from the USA revealed that musculoskeletal restrictions due to arthritis were 4 times as common for refuse collectors than for other workers. Also a study among Danish refuse collectors (data from 1984 to 1992) pointed to the fact that the risk was 1.9 times higher than for other workers [7].


Conclusions and pathways for prevention

Data derived from research studies and from statistical sources show that the waste management sector is a high-risk sector. Workers are more than average exposed to physical risk factors such as high/low temperatures and risks related to manual handling and working in painful working postures. The incidence rate of accidents at work is higher than average compared to other sectors. Fatal accidents are mostly due to transport related causes. Non-fatal accidents are often linked to manual handling.

These data provide a good basis to design pathways for prevention and emphasise the prevention priorities for the sector:

  • Vehicle and traffic safety, especially for refuse collection but also on landfill sites, e.g. automatic speed reduction, audible warning signs, cameras, maintenance procedures, high visibility clothing.
  • Work environment:
• Protection from high and low temperatures: adequate clothing (weather conditions and/or working indoor (recycling centres, incineration), breaks, rest rooms
• Workplaces: non-slippery floors and surfaces, sufficient lighting, segregate pedestrians from vehicles, sufficient space for walkways and passages.
  • Work organisation: reduction in work speed, reduction of working hours, allowing job rotation, provision of training (induction, instructions, on-the-job, refreshment)
  • Equipment, product and workstation design:
• E.g. refuse collection: replacement of bags and bins with wheeled containers, weight limit for bags and containers, design of the refuse collection vehicle (e.g. height and width of the step; optimum height is at knee height of the refuse collector), refuse collection vehicles with automatic systems for lifting containers
• E.g. recycling centres, design of sorting tables adapted to the height of the operators.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 European Working Conditions Survey 2010. Survey mapping tool and data set on waste management sector. Retrieved 1 December 2013, from: [1] and [2]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Kuijer, P, Frings-Dresen, M., World at work: Refuse collectors, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2004, vol. 61, p. 282-286. Available at: [3]
  3. Searl, A., Crawford, J., Review of Health Risks for workers in the Waste and Recycling Industry, IOM, 2012. Available at: [4]
  4. Bourdouxhe, M., Guertin, S., Cloutier, S., Etude des risques d'accident dans la collecte des ordures ménagères, IRSST, Québec, 1992. Available at: http://www.irsst.qc.ca/-publication-irsst-etude-des-risques-d-accident-dans-la-collecte-des-ordures-menageres-r-061.html
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 Eurostat. Health and safety at work statistics (hsw). Retrieved 15 November 2013, from: [5]
  6. 6.0 6.1 Water supply, sewerage, waste management and remediation statistics - NACE Rev. 2. Retrieved 29 November 2013, from: [6]
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cointreau, S., Occupational and Environmental Health Issues of Solid Waste Management, Special Emphasis on Middle- and Lower-Income Countries, The World Bank, 2006. Available at: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTUSWM/Resources/up-2.pdf
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Health and Safety Executive, Waste and recycling, Work related injuries and ill health. Retrieved 3 September 2013, from: [7]
  9. Eurostat. Labour Force Survey (LFS 2010). Retrieved 29 November 2013, from: [8]
  10. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health and Work, Factsheet 8 - A statistical portrait of the health and safety at work of young workers, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2006. Available at: [9]
  11. European Commission, Causes and circumstances of accidents at work in the EU, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, F4 unit, Luxembourg, 2009. Available at: [10]
  12. HSE, Update to mapping health and safety standards in the UK waste industry Prepared by Noble Denton BOMEL Limited for the Health and Safety Executive 2009, RR 701, 2009. Available at: [11]
  13. HSE, Review of sickness absence data in the waste and recycling industry. Prepared by the Health and Safety Laboratory for the Health and Safety Executive 2009, RR 750, 2009. Available at: [12]
  14. Denis, D., St-Vincent, M., Gonella, M., Couturier, F., Trudeau, R., Analyse des stratégies de manutention chez des éboueurs au Québec. Pistes de réflexions pour une formation à la manutention plus adaptée, IRSST, Québec, 2007. Available at: [13]

Links for further reading

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health and Work, Factsheet 14 - Preventing Work-Related Slips Trips and Falls, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2001. Available at: [14].
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health and Work OSH in figures: Work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the EU - Facts and figures, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2010. Available at: [15]
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health and Work E-fact 45 - Checklist for preventing bad working postures, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2008. Available at: [16]
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health and Work E-fact 44 - Checklist for the prevention of manual handling risks, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2008. Available at: [17]
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health and Work E-fact 43 - Checklist for preventing WRULDs, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2008. Available at: [18]
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health and Work E-fact 42 - Checklist for prevention of lower limb disorders, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2008. Available at: [19]
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health and Work Report - Prevention of work-related musculoskeletal disorders in practice, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2008. Available at: [20]