Solid waste professionals play a vital role in managing society’s waste and recyclables, but the jobs may expose workers to various health risks, including the potential exposure to cancer-causing materials. Mechanics, drivers, helpers, equipment operators, and others should follow practical strategies and best practices to minimize exposure to cancer-causing agents and safeguard their health.
By Will Flower

Collecting and processing solid waste and recyclables is a dirty job and often involves handling potentially dangerous materials, some of which may contribute to an increased risk of exposure to potentially cancer-causing materials. Good safety programs incorporate risk analysis to identify potential threats to workers’ health. Once risks are identified, safety initiatives can be established to reduce exposure to dangers. And, while we can never eliminate all of the hazards employees face, it is possible to minimize and manage these hazards by following several common sense steps.


Mechanics should use gloves to protect the skin and hands from exposure to chemicals.
Photos courtesy of Will Flower.

#1: Train and Educate
The first steps in avoiding exposure to cancer-causing materials is education so that workers are aware of the materials we are collecting and processing. Solid waste organizations spend a considerable amount of time and resources to protect workers from the health hazards associated with exposure to dangerous substances. Regular safety training will ensure drivers, laborers, equipment operators, and others take appropriate precautions and use necessary protective equipment.

#2: Use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
PPE is a crucial defense against exposure to harmful substances. Truck drivers, laborers, and mechanics should always use the appropriate PPE, such as gloves, masks, and safety glasses. Rubber or latex gloves should be worn when handling dangerous materials such as diesel fuel, gasoline, oil, lubricants, and other volatile organic compounds. PPE acts as a barrier between the worker’s body and the potential carcinogens, reducing the risk of skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion.

#3: Proper Ventilation in the Cab and Controlling Dust at Work Stations
Maintaining good ventilation inside the truck cab and inside processing facilities is critical for minimizing exposure to airborne contaminants. Drivers should ensure that the ventilation system inside the cab is working properly. Air filters that trap particles and pollutants should be replaced as part of a regular maintenance program. The cleaning of air handling systems and use of misting systems will maintain a healthy air quality inside processing facilities.

#4: Follow Safe Handling Practices
Adhering to safe handling practices is essential. Truck drivers should ensure that spills or leaks are promptly addressed.


Drivers, helpers, and equipment operators should wash off their boots on a regular basis to remove dirt and grease.

#5: Avoid Fumes from Welding
Heating metals to very high temperatures can be dangerous for workers who weld. According to scientists at the International Agency for Research on Cancer welding fumes can potentially cause lung cancer, kidney cancer, and melanoma of the eye, as well as other health problems. Using proper PPE and welding in well-ventilated areas can reduce exposure to fumes.

#6: Avoid Exposure to Airborne Asbestos
Demolition workers and transfer station operators where construction and demolition (C&D) waste is processed should be mindful of potential asbestos exposure, which is still found in older buildings. Exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.

#7: Follow Safety in the Shop
Mechanics are exposed to many of dangerous chemicals in the shop including benzene, gasoline, and tetrachloroethylene (also known as “perc”), which acts as a grease solvent. Disposable, latex, surgical-type gloves can be used for incidental contact. Nitrile gloves are preferred in the shop because they are resistance to many chemicals, are more durable, cut resistant, and do not trigger latex allergies. Ensure that diesel exhaust capture systems are working properly and used when trucks are running inside a repair shop.

#8: Practice Good Hygiene
Practicing good hygiene is a simple yet effective way to reduce the risk of exposure. Workers and drivers should wash their hands thoroughly after handling materials and before eating or touching their face. Carrying personal hygiene items, such as hand sanitizers and cleaning wipes, can help drivers maintain cleanliness, especially when restroom facilities are limited on the road.

#9: Schedule Regular Health Checkups
Regular health checkups are essential for early detection of any health issues, including those related to exposure to cancer-causing materials. Workers should schedule routine medical examinations to monitor their overall health and discuss any concerns with their healthcare providers.

Taking Proactive Steps
Solid waste and recycling employees face unique challenges when it comes to avoiding exposure to cancer-causing materials. By incorporating these strategies into safety programs and daily operations, employees can take proactive steps to protect themselves from potential health risks. The combination of knowledge, proper equipment usage, and adherence to safety practices will contribute to a safer and healthier working environment for all employees in the waste and recycling industry. While the threat of exposure to dangerous materials may never be eliminated from the waste and recycling business, steps can be taken to reduce the exposure and decrease the number of workers being diagnosed with and dying of different occupational cancers every year. | WA

Tips for Reducing Exposure to Cancer Causing Chemicals

You cannot completely prevent cancer. We can, however, better our chances of avoiding cancer by
minimizing exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. Each employee must make his or her own
commitment to their health and well-being.
Follow these tips to avoid exposure:
1. Apply safety training to reduce exposure.
2. Use proper Personal Protective Equipment.
3. Be careful when collecting waste. Do not stand behind the hopper when waste is being loaded.
4. Do not stand near the engine exhaust. When appropriate turn off the engine to reduce emissions.
5. Protect your hands and skin. Wear gloves and, when needed, use rubber or nitrile gloves.
6. Keep your hands clean. Use gloves. Before eating or drinking, wash hands with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use disposable wipes or hand sanitizer.
7. Clean your boots. Brush large debris off work boots. If needed, spray boots with water and use detergent to remove dirt, muck, and grime. During cold weather, use a dry brush or a boot scraper to remove dirt from work boots.
8. Practice healthy lifestyle choices. Exercise regularly, eat right, limit or avoid alcohol, avoid tobacco products, use sunscreen, and see a doctor for regular checkups.

Will Flower is the Senior Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Winters Bros. Waste Systems on Long Island, NY.

Share your safety tip. Submit your suggestions to Will Flower at [email protected].