The U.S. Department of Labor states that most American workers are not at significant risk of infection from the Coronavirus. However, they do warn that exposure risk may be elevated for some workers, including those in solid waste management, who interact with potentially infected travelers from abroad.
By Will Flower

The availability and use of hand sanitizer, gloves, and disinfectant wipes can help lower the risk of sickness and prevent its spread.

In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the global coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is a pandemic, which means the illnesses are occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population. A pandemic could lead to high levels of illness, death, social disruption and economic loss. Everyday life could be disrupted because so many people in so many places become ill at the same time. Impacts can range from school and business closings, to the cancellation of public events to the interruption of basic services such as public transportation.

During this—and every other public health related crisis—it is necessary for solid waste and recycling companies to be prepared and to take actions to protect employees, facilities and resources. A high priority should be placed on developing and, if necessary, implementing a Pandemic Response Plan in order to perform critical business processes during a pandemic.

  • The following issues are relevant to the solid waste industry and may present themselves during a pandemic:
  • Employee absenteeism rises to rates that no longer sustain general business activities
  • Commercial business collection, for businesses that are crowd related (hotels, airports, shopping malls, restaurants) drops off significantly due to lack of business
  • Hospital waste streams are likely to increase
  • Travel is curtailed by federal and state quarantine activities
  • Residential waste stream flow increases significantly due to people staying home

Steps to Respond
The proper management of waste during and following a crisis is critical. Companies can immediately implement these steps to address the situation.

#1: Education and Training of Employees
Information and training are at the heart of pandemic planning and containment. Developing and disseminating educational material covering pandemic fundamentals (e.g. signs and symptoms of sickness, modes of transmission), personal and family protection and response strategies (e.g. hand hygiene, coughing/sneezing etiquette, contingency plans) is key to informing employees about protective measures they can take. Supervisors should cross-train employees to ensure the company has sufficient coverage for all critical business processes should high absenteeism occur.

#2: Procure Supplies and Service
Because the supply chains may become disrupted in a pandemic, operating facilities and offices should stockpile critical supplies during the pre-pandemic stage or as soon possible. Some of the items to secure include:
• Disposable latex and nitrile gloves
• Eye goggles
• Alcohol based hand sanitizer
• Disinfectant wipes

#3: Stress Good Hygiene
Person-to-person transmission is thought to occur mainly by respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
Good hygiene and housekeeping practices may lower any potential risk of sickness and prevent its spread. Companies should encourage employees to take such precautions before and during a pandemic outbreak. Provide sufficient and accessible infection control supplies (e.g. hand-hygiene products, tissues, etc.) at all business locations.

#4: Social Distancing
Social distancing is taking measures to keep employees away from other people, including other employees, customers and the public, in order to prevent exposure. Implement guidelines to modify the frequency and type of face-to-face contact (e.g. hand shaking, seating in meetings, office layout, shared workstations) among employees and between employees and customers.

#5: Evaluate the Need to Travel
Monitor posted travel restrictions and establish policies for restricting travel to affected geographic areas. Airline travel may be discouraged or prohibited during a pandemic wave.

#6: Sick Leave and Time Off
Forecast and allow for employee absences during a pandemic due to factors such as personal illness, family member illness, community containment measures, quarantines, school and/or business closures, and public transportation closures.
Establish policies that are flexible to allow an appropriate response to the crisis and consider policies that are unique to a pandemic (e.g. non-punitive, liberal leave, immediate mandatory sick leave). Also, create a policy on when a previously ill person, who is no longer infectious, can return to work after an illness.

#7: If You Are sick, Stay Home
Let employees know that they will not get into trouble for staying home when they are sick. Supervisors need to let workers know that it is not only okay, but also strongly recommended that they stay home when they are ill. Warn workers about the harm they could do to themselves and others by coming to work sick. Let them know that the best thing that they can do for themselves and the company is stay home, take care of themselves and get better as soon as possible.

#8: Manage Fear
Fear, stress, frustration, anxiety and loss are to be expected during a pandemic outbreak. Rumors and misinformation may abound. This may cause increased absenteeism, stress and lowered productivity. Providing accurate and timely information will help to reduce anxiety of employees.

#9: Keep it Clean
Surfaces should be cleaned regularly. In the office and dispatch area, wipe down workspaces. Keep disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer around when you cannot wash your hands.

#10: Communicate
Anticipate employee fear and anxiety, quell rumors and misinformation and plan communications accordingly. Information shared with employees should only be from credible and verified sources (see Getting Accurate Information to Keep Employees Informed sidebar). Have an effective way to reach employees to keep them informed. Likewise, communicating with communities and customers about the company’s current capabilities, plans, and delays will help to reduce unnecessary tensions and fears. Enhance communications with social media and other platforms (e.g. hotlines, dedicated websites) for communicating pandemic status and actions to employees, vendors, suppliers, and customers in a consistent and timely way.


Adapt as Necessary
The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving. How the solid waste and recycling industry will be affected is still to be determined as we learn about the transmissibility, severity and other features associated with COVID-19. Companies need to carefully monitor the situation and adapt their plans as necessary to address the situation. | WA

Will Flower is the Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Winters Bros. Waste Systems. Will has 36 years of experience in the area of solid waste management and environmental protection. He has held operational and executive leadership positions at the Director’s Office of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Waste Management, Inc., Republic Services. Inc. and Green Stream Recycling. Share your safety tip. Submit your suggestions to Will Flower at