The proximity between workers and the materials that are being processed at recycling centers, along with the many moving parts inside recycling plants, mandate strong safety programs.
By Will Flower

Employees, supervisors and managers should evaluate changes to recycling processes and review new equipment to identify potential safety issues. Re-engineering, proper guarding, employee training, plus the use of PPE will help to remove or reduce the risk to employees. Photos courtesy of Will Flower.

Over the past three years, recycling centers across America have been redesigned, retooled and rebuilt in order to produce higher quality commodities with less contamination. The processing of recyclables at these new facilities present a number of unique safety challenges for managers, supervisors and employees. For example, workers at recycling centers may be in close contact with recyclable materials moving along conveyor belts. Additionally, recycling centers that have been automated with optical sorting machines typically run materials along conveyor belts at much faster speeds.

Begin with a Thorough Review
The start of every safety program should begin with a thorough review of the entire operation. A team of managers, supervisors and employees should review operations and write down potential hazards that exist at a facility. The facility review should be thorough and look at every aspect from the scale house to the tip floor, and all the way to the bale storage area. Do not be surprised if the list of potential hazards is a long one. Some common areas of concern include employee exposure to:
• Trucks, forklifts and payloaders (potential for workers getting hit by a piece of equipment)
• Moving parts and equipment (conveyors, screens, trammels, motors, balers, etc.)
• Heavy lifting (potential for back injuries and other strains)
• Overreaching when sorting (potential for wrist, elbow shoulder or upper body strain)
• Accidental machinery start-up
• High noise levels
• Needles and other sharp objects (especially when employees are hand sorting recyclables)
• Falling bales

Special safety consideration must also focus on:
• Electrical Systems
• Fire Prevention
• Trip and Fall Protection
• Air Quality

Workers attend a safety briefing prior to working at a recycling facility. .

Developing a Safety Response Plan
Once a list of potential hazards is assembled, safety managers should develop a formal safety response plan to eliminate the risks to workers. Hazards that cannot be completely removed must be mitigated and procedures must be developed to reduce risks. Some aspects of your safety program at the recycling center should include:
• The proper use of Personal Protective Equipment
• Lock Out, Tag Out
• Equipment training including the proper use of forklifts
• Ergonomics
• Fire protection and proper use of fire extinguishers
• Flammable and combustible liquids storage and handling
• Bale stacking and storage procedures
• Hearing protection
• Protective measures for working in cold and hot environments
• Basic first aid

Employee Training
Safety training and employee education is a critical component of every safety program. To be certain that every employee understands the program you should be aware of potential language and communication issues. Recycling centers sometimes have employees who use English as a second language. In these cases, you need be sure to train and educate employees by communicating in the language that the employee understands.
Safety should also be included in every new employee’s orientation. Managers must stress the need for new employees to be safety conscious and always be on the lookout to ensure the safety of his/her fellow employees. Complacency is the biggest threat to any safety program. Regularly reviewing various aspects of the safety program will help keep employees alert and focused on safe operations. Additionally, every recycling operation is unique and changes to processing systems are common. Safety managers should regularly evaluate their facilities and update safety initiatives and training to match the specific operations and equipment that is in use at the recycling center.

The Time is Now
Remember, the acceptable number of accidents and injuries is ZERO. No operator should ever concede accidents and injuries are simply “a cost of doing business.” Each year, too many serious injuries or fatalities occur within recycling plants. Unfortunately, in some cases, the danger was clear, but no one took the steps to mitigate the risk or properly educate employees on the best way to eliminate the hazard and reduce the potential for an injury.

Every good recycling program has goals and objectives that can be measured and evaluated. Track a number of items on a matrix including the number of employees trained, hours spent on safety training, a log of accidents and injuries, etc. This will allow you to review the training and determine where safety programs can be improved.
Remember, the time to implement a strong safety program is now. Safety initiatives and programs should be reviewed with every employee on a regular basis to keep safety top of mind.

Will Flower is the Senior Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Winters Bros. Waste Systems. Will has 37 years of experience in the field 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.
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