Jessica Cearfoss


Most everyone knows waste collection can be a dirty job, but it’s also a very dangerous job. Refuse and recyclable materials collectors rank as the sixth most dangerous job in the United States, according to David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). That’s an improvement from the last four years, when the profession ranked fifth, a credit to SWANA’s work in educating the industry.

Safety is also one of our core values, and when it comes down to it, nothing is more important than the safety of those operating the heavy machinery involved in public works. We design our advanced routing solutions with a premium on keeping drivers and operators safe. This approach includes limiting situations where a garbage truck, for instance, needs to drive in reverse, routing to the right side of the street to avoid meandering across traffic and minimizing other dangerous maneuvers, such as U-turns on the highway.

At RouteSmart, one of the central themes we get asked about as it relates to safety has a lot to do with traffic and turns and maneuvers. We receive a lot of inquiries from clients related to backing up, and the way the software would handle certain situations. Our goal is to be thoughtful with our routing software when it comes to situations requiring maneuvers, traffic patterns, as well as the size of collection trucks.

Another key point of interest and a differentiator for us has to do with the fact that we truly do consider the side of service for the collection—in the sense that, regardless of the style of truck, even if a company or a group is using rear loading vehicles for safety reasons, they may not allow what we refer to as a meander service to collect on both sides. The tools we have will define a right-side service and then efficiently route you back down the other side of street to complete service of the street so that you’re not darting across traffic.

In public works, side of street specific routing should be at the top of your must-have list. It ensures the most accurate, safe and efficient route for waste management vehicles. Here are four reasons why your routing platform must incorporate side of street routing.

Backing up is also a serious safety concern. In July, a solid waste collection employee died following a fatal collision with a tractor-trailer in Nassau County, just outside of New York City. According to local media reports, the collision occurred as the reversed onto a customer’s property. Riding on the steps or the back of the truck while the vehicle is backing up is very dangerous and can lead to a fatality.

Sadly, there are far too many stories just like this that happen across North America. Last year, there were 30 collection-related fatalities, down from 35 deaths a year prior. However, that’s still one fatality every 12 days, and that doesn’t even include those incidents involving serious injuries.

SWANA has developed a safety campaign of five simple tips to help solid waste workers stay safe on the job. Dubbed “Five to Stay Alive,” the Washington-D.C.-based organization urges waste industry professionals to use these resources to create a positive safety culture in the workplace.

The five tips include:

  1. Always wear PPE, especially high visibility vests and/or outerwear
  2. Never use your cell phone while driving the truck or at a disposal facility
  3. Don’t ride on the step if the truck is backing or going more than 10mph or 1/5th mile
  4. Always comply with safety belt rules
  5. Don’t exceed the speed limit and don’t rush

“I think that SWANA and others have done a really good job of infusing safety as a core value for solid waste collection, but in processing and disposal as well,” Biderman told me during a recent podcast, Right on Time with RouteSmart. “And putting safety front of mind for people, communicating a lot about safety, providing better equipment, giving people the tools and the resources so that they can keep themselves safe … that’s how we’re going to continue to drive down the injury rate and the fatality rate for solid waste workers.”

RouteSmart, a long-time member of SWANA, is a gold sponsor of the upcoming Safety Summit, which will be held Nov. 2-4 as part of WasteCon 2021 in Orlando, Florida. There will be about 60 sessions focused on providing tools and resources to those in the solid waste industry, in both the private and public sectors, to allow organizations to improve their safety, performance and reduce accidents and injuries.

“The Safety Summit is intended to be a train the trainer sort of event where people can come and get the information and tools they can then use to go back to their workplaces and train their workers,” Biderman said. “So, you’ll hear not just about what the rules are, because we all know what the rules are, but also how to train people to reach a worker who’s been working as a driver for 20 years and thinks that he or she knows everything they need to know about how to drive a garbage truck safely.”

One of the dynamics that makes collection activities so dangerous is that it is done at all hours of the day in all types of weather, creating visibility issues and slip and fall hazards. One of the leading causes of fatalities is when garbage trucks are struck by another vehicle. “This is why we’ve championed the Slow Down to Get Around program so heavily over the past 10 years,” Biderman said. “The other leading cause is backing – what I mean by that is being backed into by your own truck. One would think that a sanitation worker would know not to stand behind the truck while it’s going backward and avoid being struck by the truck. But, unfortunately, it’s one of the leading causes of fatalities, because often, workers are trying to work quickly to complete their routes and they sometimes cut corners that can lead to very bad consequences.”

The flexibility offered within our routing solutions allows drivers to eliminate dangerous turns and avoid intersections with high historical rates of crashes. It also allows users to calibrate different speeds so that you can slow down your service speed from posted speed limits, which are often unrealistic. The software is thinking about the fact that really, you need to be going slower, so we can realistically calibrate that and effectively build realistic routes around what you should be doing to meet an organization’s safety requirements.

I’ve been in the public works space for the last 14 years and the call for stronger safety measures and awareness has never been louder, which is a great thing. Moving forward, I believe there will be an even deeper emphasis on safety as organizations strive to be as efficient and safe as possible in the post-pandemic world.

Jessica Cearfoss has served as RouteSmart’s Business Development Manager for the public works industry since 2007. In her role, she works with some of the largest private and municipal public works companies across the globe. For more information, visit