Preventing fatalities must come first

Latest figures reveal that the waste sector had nine fatalities in 2010-11. Peter Elliott explains how Biffa's municipal division has slashed the number of safety-related incidents

Picking up recyclables and refuse for over 40 local authorities across the UK means that Biffa's municipal crews make over 2.5 million collections every week. That is 2.5 million chances to make a mistake, take a short cut or let attention wander - and so risk injury or death.

As a major industry player, Biffa takes health and safety seriously. This means identifying, understanding and reducing risk wherever possible to try and ensure that every staff member goes home safely at the end of a working day. Many of our municipal contracts include a clause or section on health and safety, often supported by specific performance indicators and targets.

This focus is now intensifying and can be seen from top to bottom throughout the organisation. At the top, Biffa Group director of safety, health and environment Shaun Davis was recently appointed to improve standards. Part of this effort will be to ensure that no-one loses sight of the "health" aspects of health and safety.

As well as staging safety improvement events, setting targets and rolling out a comprehensive improvement plan, Biffa is now a full member of the British Safety Council and has signed up to its five-star audit. The first audit will be held early in 2012, with the aim of all operating divisions attaining that status two years later.

A recent year-long campaign helped the municipal division halve lost-time incidents, with some depots achieving and maintaining zero incident status. This was part of a company-wide drive to reduce these incidents by 50% between March 2010 and February 2011.

Much of our municipal crews' work involves walking to and from collection vehicles and kerbsides, as well as handling loads such as wheeled bins, recycling boxes and sacks. It is estimated that on an average working day, a vehicle loader could handle between seven and nine tonnes of waste, and walk up to 10 miles.

Analysis of incidents reported by our then near-1,000 staff who worked on 17 local council contracts found that manual handling and slips, trips and falls were prime areas for attention. To these, we added vehicle reversing, road risks, footwear, and incident identification, reporting and investigation. Vehicle reversing remains a hot topic as it is a major contributor to deaths in the municipal sector.

Biffa's health and safety team worked with external consultants to improve manual handling; launched a new vehicle reversing policy and training; ensured staff wore the correct safety boots; and improved incident investigations.

Every Biffa employee has also been trained on how to record a near miss or hazard, using a purpose-designed card, and how to report it to a supervisor for action. Members of staff are trained to check customer sites and rounds carefully. They are encouraged to not just note or report the hazard, but to think of ways that it might be resolved or minimised.

By implementing these changes, management, depots and staff helped the municipal division meet its overall target. Some depots had no incidents for the second year running, while others only just missed the target.

But we must never be complacent. Biffa's municipal division has expanded significantly to over 2,500 staff and some 1,000 vehicles since last year's acquisition of Greenstar UK and its municipal specialist, Verdant.

In line with Davis's strategic drive, we are focused on manual handling, slips, trips and falls, and vehicle reversing as these are still the most frequent risk areas. Health and safety champions-cum-trainers are also being embedded in each municipal depot.

As with any employer, Biffa has statutory health and safety obligations to its workforce. But in a sector as risky as ours, the stakes are higher. Every day, our municipal crews do take their lives in their hands as they provide the everyday collection services that millions take for granted. We must not take health and safety for granted.

Peter Elliott is a safety, health and environmental coach at Biffa

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