Waste industry acts to improve H&S performance

Health issues within the waste industry have been the focus of attention this year, through a series of important reports and initiatives, ranging from a wide ranging report for DEFRA to disturbing new statistics on the industry's safety record and action by The Composting Association and ESA to improve performance in this field. On the clinical waste front new services are being developed and, for safer vehicle operation, useful new guidance has been published. LAWE's special feature reports on development in these key areas.

The first of a series of reports and initiatives on the impact of waste operation on health and the environment came in the Spring when a comprehensive review* of the environmental and health effects of municipal waste management commissioned by DEFRA concluded that major activities in the sector have “a most minor effect on human health and the environment, particularly when compared with everyday activities.”

The main conclusion of the research team, headed by Enviros and Prof Roy Harrison, was that the weight of evidence from the studies so far, indicates present day practice for managing municipal waste has, at most, a minor effect on human health and the environment, particularly when compared with everyday activities.
Key findings include:

  • dealing with municipal solid waste by incineration accounts for less than 1% of UK emissions of dioxins, while domestic sources such as cooking and burning
  • coal for heating account for 18% of emissions
  • less than 1% of UK emissions of oxides of nitrogen, which reduce air quality, come from municipal solid waste management, while 42% come from road traffic.

    There are some areas where there has been less work and the science is less certain. These include emissions to soil and water (rather than air) and releases from forms of waste management other than landfill, such as composting, mechanical biological treatment or anaerobic digestion.


    The review found no evidence to suggest that the current generation of municipal solid waste incinerators is likely to have an effect on human health. Cancer, respiratory diseases and birth defects were all considered and no evidence was found for a link between the incidence of the disease and the current generation of incinerators.

    However, the report recognises that there is more that can and should be learnt and identifies the most important areas for further research. The Environment Agency is already undertaking research to look at composting and a continuing programme of work on landfill.

    Environment Minister Elliot Morley said that the independent report “takes us a good way forward in our understanding of the impact waste management practices have on air quality and emissions, although there will be a need for further research.”

    Concern over safety record

    Far less reassuring for waste professionals was a disturbing new report for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Incidents rates in the waste industry are higher than those in construction according to research published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

    Mapping health and safety standards in the UK waste industry**, a report of a research project carried out by Bomel Ltd for HSE shows that the number of fatal incidents are over ten times the national average, while accident rates are four times the average.

    The critical statistics are: UK waste industry accident rate 2001/2 was 2,459 accidents/ 100,000 workers; and UK waste industry fatal accident rate 2001/2 was 10 fatalities/ 100,000 workers.

    The incidents predominantly occur to refuse/recycling collection workers who manually handle and sort waste.

    The research shows that over 40% of injuries are handling and sprain types and approximately one third result from slips, trips and falls. Being struck by vehicles accounts for 3.5% of incidents.

    James Barrett, Head of the HSE’s Manufacturing Sector, said: “These rates are unacceptable for a major industry, such as the waste sector.”
    Better news for the industry is that Commission (HSC) and Executive (HSE), who raised the alarm over the poor safety record within the waste industry, have welcomed a recent move by the The Environmental Services Association (ESA).
    The ESA’s s Accident Reduction Charter, announced in July, is seen as a major new initiative to improve the health and safety performance in the waste management industry.

    The ESA’s Charter aims to reduce the incidence rate of RIDDOR reportable accidents by 10% every year until 2007 and to eliminate fatalities by the end of that period. The baseline year for measuring progress against the targets is 2002.
    The Composting Association has also recently published new guidance for composters on safe operating practices and avoiding potential risks to health. The updated edition of the Association’s Health and Safety at Composting Sites: A guide for Site Managers, builds on the previous version by including sections on machinery, noise, manual handling, transport issues and the Animal By-Products Regulations, and updating information on relevant health and safety law.
    It also gives explanations of the potential hazards involved in composting such as bioaerosols, as well as covering other topics including: employee training, health surveillance, personal protective equipment and management of composting facilities.

    Copies of the book cost £45 for members of the Composting Association and £65 for non-members. Call 0870 160 3270 for more information.

    *The Review of Environmental and Health Effects of Waste Management – Municipal Waste and Similar Wastes is available on the DEFRA website at www.defra.gov.uk/environment/waste/health-effects/index.htm
    **Mapping health and safety standards in the UK waste industry, Research Report 240,
    ISBN 0 7176 2865 5, price £35, is available from HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 2WA, Tel: 01787-881165 or Fax: 01787-313995 or can be down loaded from the HSE website http://

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