Recycling Plant Safety: Top 11 Hazards To Watch Out For

Jonathan Stolk

Waste and recycling sector workers are at high risk of injury or fatality while at work, according to safety data. GAIA reported on recycling plant safety in 2015. It found that U.S. recycling plant employees were more than twice as likely to suffer an injury in the workplace than the average worker.

The workplace fatality figures are also a cause for concern in America:

Source: Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, 2018 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics

The issues extend across the pond, too. The fatality rate in the UK waste and recycling sector per 100,000 employees standing at 18 times the all-worker average for 2019/20. Throughout the whole European Union, the rate of non-fatal workplace accidents between 2010 and 2017 was on average 1,556.86. But, in the waste management industry, that leaped to 3,056.32.  

There are many theories as to why this is the case. This report by GAIA suggested a number of reasons for these results. It picked up on unsafe conditions, lack of proper training, exposure to hazardous products in particular. 

So, yes, recycling plant safety is certainly a topic that we have to talk about. Let’s go over the top 11 hazards you need to watch out for at recycling plants in this article. 

The Top 11 Risks that Recycling Workers Face

Overview

Hazards and health effects by activity per Poole, Basu, Systematic Review: Occupational illness in the waste and recycling sector.

Recycling activityHazards to healthReported clinical and biological effects
Composting, municipal solid and toxic waste Heavy manual handling, inorganic dust, bioaerosols, VOCs, PAHs, heavy metals, dioxins, furans Fatal and non-fatal injuries, MMI, OA, EAA, ABPA, asbestos-related lung disease, abnormal lung function, gastro-intestinal disease, contact dermatitis, Q fever, leptospirosis
Metals, batteries, cables, wires, and catalytic converters Inorganic dust, lead, other heavy metals to include Hg and Pt, noise, radioactive materials, dioxins, furans Pb poisoning in lead-acid battery; raised urinary Hg in alkaline battery workers 
Glass to include cathode-ray tubes Noise, bioaerosols MMI, raised blood Pb 
Fluorescent lights Inorganic dust, metal fume, mercury, lead, yttrium Hg and Pb poisoning, MGN, and nephrotic syndrome 
Landfill Inorganic dust, bioaerosols, asbestos, gases MMI, respiratory, dermatological, and gastrointestinal symptoms 
Textiles Organic dust, bioaerosols MMI, respiratory symptoms, abnormal lung function tests, byssinosis, COPD, OA 
Wood, chipboard, and bark chippings Dust, bioaerosols Acute pulmonary aspergillosis from bark chippings; OA from burning wood; MMI, OA, EAA, COPD from manufacturing with wood 
Medical waste Sharps, blood-borne viruses, radioactive materials, heavy metals in incinerator ash Seroconversion from sharps injury 
Paper Organic contamination, bioaerosolsMMI, OA, sensitization to storage mites 
WEEE Heavy manual handling, inorganic dust, PAHs, heavy metals, dioxins, furans, brominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants) Respiratory symptoms, abnormal lung function, adverse neonatal outcomes, chromosomal aberrations, argyria

1. Exposure to Chemical Substances

Workers in a materials recovery facility (MRF) are likely to be exposed to chemical substances. Particularly if they work in a so-called β€œdirty MRF”, where they separate mixed waste manually on the sort line. In addition, if a plant recycles batteries, there is the potential for exposure to chemicals such as acid, cadmium, mercury, and lead. Lead is also an issue for workers who recycle scrap metal. They have to deal with other metalworking fluids too. 

2. Exposure to Biohazards

There is the risk of infection from pathogenic microorganisms when working with items such as medical waste, animal feces, and even human waste from diapers. The moisture on site can contribute to an environment in which these biological hazards can grow and multiply. This increases the chances of causing harm to the worker. Garbage from laboratories and items such as hypodermic needles can carry the risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis. 

3. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when the median nerve is squeezed at the wrist. This can result in pain, numbness, or weakness in the hand or wrist. One of the known contributors to carpal tunnel syndrome is the regular use of vibrating machinery, which is why recycling plant workers and those in manufacturing, mining, and other related industries often suffer from the illness.

4. Skin and Eye Damage

There are a number of different ways workers can damage their skin at recycling plants. When handling engine oil and diesel over a long period of time, there is a risk of skin cancer,  with other waste and recycling workers reporting skin irritation and infections as a result of airborne bacteria. Exposure to chemicals in municipal solid waste, or mixed municipal waste as it is referred to in the European Union, can irritate the eyes. As can the dust that emits from recycling wood, paper, and cardboard. 

5. Ergonomics and Musculoskeletal Disorders

The Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders in Ontario, Canada has expressed concern over plants that require workers to reach more than 50cm (19.6 inches) when rooting out non-recyclable materials on conveyor belts. This repetitive motion and the resulting awkward postures for the back and shoulder can lead to long term pain and damage to the worker. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive reports that one-third of all reported injuries in the waste management and recycling world are Musculoskeletal disorders and manual handling injuries.

6. PPE and Social Distancing

When colleagues are working on opposite sides of an automatic conveyor, sorting waste, it is difficult to maintain the recommended six-foot/two-meter social distance to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. The reason that workers have to be in such close quarters usually is so nothing non-recyclable is missed. When it comes to PPE, the use of such personal protective equipment does mitigate against infections and viruses like Covid-19, but in hot environments, wearing additional clothing like this can lead to heat-related illnesses. 

7. Moving Machine Parts

There are many different machines with moving parts to contend with at recycling facilities. Careless use of conveyor belts, sorting machinery, and compactors can lead to lacerations as well as crushed hands, feet and limbs, and even amputations. 

8. Struck by a Moving/Falling Object

There are many potential ways a worker can be injured by being struck at a recycling plant. It could be improperly secured material bales falling, a colleague dropping a tool from height, a moving piece of machinery, a forklift truck being maneuvered around the site without due care, or one of many other examples of items dropping onto or otherwise striking a worker.  

9. Trapped by Something Collapsing or Overturning

Cranes and forklift trucks can overturn when improperly stacked in a recycling plant environment. This can cause workers to be trapped underneath. Similarly, when materials that are piled up fall or poorly maintained walls collapse, there is a risk hazard.

10. Slips, Trips, and Falls

With so many materials around on site, there are multiple opportunities for workers to trip and fall. Many recycling plants produce a lot of moisture, which provides a slip hazard in the workplace. There are also often a number of tall structures on which an employee might be required to climb, including ladders, pylons, and cranes. This provides a risk of the worker falling from a height. Slips, trips, and falls were the second most common cause of workplace non-fatal injuries in the US in 2019 and the third most common cause of fatal injuries at work. 

11. Respiratory Hazards

78% of British Columbia waste and recycling workers reported suffering from respiratory illnesses due to their employment. The amount of dust on site, as well as airborne pathogens and contaminants, mean that employees can breathe in matter that can cause illness. 

Tips for Reducing Injuries

  • Reduce the width of the sorting station conveyor belt to help prevent workers from overstretching. In addition, you can mark a line down the middle that will guide them on where the safe stretching zone ends. Another solution would be to provide workers with a long pole with a clamp on the end to help sort waste from recyclables.
  • Proper ventilation and face masks help enormously with reducing the incidence of workers breathing in airborne contaminants. 
  • Instigating Lock Out, Tag Out procedures to properly ensure machines are shut down and cannot restart while staff members are working on them can prevent many injuries and fatalities. 
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome can be prevented using a number of measures. These include taking regular breaks, performing stretching exercises before working with vibrating equipment, ensuring correct positioning, and keeping hands warm with fingerless gloves. 
  • Ongoing worker safety training and toolbox talks to bring all staff up to speed on best practices in the workplace is another vital element of ensuring a safe working environment. Work on your safety program to make sure it is accessible and understandable for all workers. 
  • Instilling an open reporting culture encourages workers to flag up hazards before they cause an incident. Making it as easy as possible for employees to alert management to these issues means they can be fixed promptly. The Capptions app allows all staff to instantly report from their smartphones on site, meaning the full details are fresh in their mind and they don’t forget to issue their report. 
  • Make regular inspections to ensure your safety messages are getting through. 

Conclusion

The waste and recycling industry is a high-risk sector in which to work. However, there are many measures that you can take to reduce the common risks on site. From ensuring there is adequate ventilation to investing in training and working on your occupational safety culture so no worker fears reprisals for reporting an incident or a hazard. By implementing these recycling plant safety tips before there is an incident, you can keep your workplace safe and happy. 

References and Further Reading

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