Waste sector urged not to leave safety behind

The fast-moving waste sector with its hi-tech advances could leave health and safety issues in the shadows, warns David Gilliver

Safety issues are in danger of slipping down the agenda in the waste sector

Safety issues are in danger of slipping down the agenda in the waste sector

Last November Waste Recycling Group's CEO Paul Taylor told delegates at a waste health and safety conference in London that "the waste industry is going through a bigger change than at any time in its history - it's an exciting time to be in the business, but it brings significant health and safety challenges."

New legislation and directives have led to far more processing of waste, and a corresponding increase in hazards and risk. It is no longer viable to develop processes and infrastructure and then make sure they are safe, he added.

The way forward, according to the Health & Safety Executive's (HSE) head of operational strategy Stephen Williams is to "design for safety" and the industry needs to take the lead.

He said that the mix of private, public and third sector organisations - along with high subcontracting rates and a transient workforce - means very different levels of efficiency in addressing risk, and both the death rate and the all-injury rate in the sector are substantially higher than across industry as a whole.

As an industrial sector, by any measure, the waste industry is considerably worse. The HSE is clear that it's not up to the Government to solve these problems.

"They can assist, but unless the industry takes ownership, nothing's going to change," said John Spanswick, HSE non-executive board member. "You need clear leadership - you need champions."

The "number one root cause" of all accidents is supervisor competence, he points out. "I'm not just talking about technical competence - I mean supervisors' understanding of their responsibility and accountability for looking after their workforce."

And that workforce also needs to be fully involved. "Most of the good ideas will come from workers, but often they think they'll be castigated, or management won't be interested," he continued. "We absolutely have to break that mould - worker engagement is vital."

Another key issue is the consistency of technology, with a variety of solutions often existing within the same organisation. Spanswick maintained that the industry needs a consistent approach to the equipment it uses and should not underestimate the leverage it has on procurement.

The sharing of relevant information is also vital, although many organisations could feel uncomfortable about revealing sensitive information.

"But it needs to be done," insisted Spanswick. "The sharing of near misses and incidents will save lives". Associations also have a key role to play in setting the standards to which their members need to comply.

According to Geoff Smallwood of Shanks, almost 60% of equipment issues that lead to accidents are caused by design faults, either in specification or implementation. While there were no fatalities involving machinery in British waste management between 1996 and 2002, there are now between one and three a year, he said.

Alongside health and safety input from the "pre-design" stage, it is also important not to assume all suppliers are competent. "If there are areas where interpretation may be an issue, provide your own standards, and make them a matter of contract," he added.

Maggie Dutton, a policy adviser at the Environment Agency, said the agency is changing its approach to accommodate developments, with the aim of combining health and safety and environmental concerns to avoid any conflicts. The agency has produced new guidance on waste categorisation.

"You'll always meet people who are sceptical about the health and safety agenda," said Spanswick. "I just say, 'are you interested in saving money?' because good health and safety does save money - it's not an add-on.

"You can't change everything overnight, so you have to prioritise. Ultimately, however, things will only change with leadership. That means leaders who are not prepared to compromise, regardless of time or cost pressures."

David Gilliver is a freelance journalist


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