Waste & Recycling


Occupational health and safety (OHS), waste and the 3Rs

Lately, I channel the well-placed “What?” during Taylor Swift’s lyrics to her new hit song, We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together – song number two on an accidental gift CD left in my Dodge Caliber by my 20-year old daughter Alex. And then my mind goes spinning as I imagine attending some seminar in the late 1980s being run by industry and municipal recycling coordinators trained on conveyor belt operations by Henry Ford.

By David McRobert
On August 17th, Ellen Moorhouse published a very flattering review of my new book, My Municipal Recycling Program Made Me Fat And Sick: How Well Intentioned Environmentalists Teamed Up With The Soft Drink Industry To Promote Obesity And Injure Workers (for a link to the book see below.) The review was published in the Toronto Star on Saturday, September 1, 2012.
Since the article was published on the Star’s website, I have been contacted by dozens of journalists, academics, experts, consultants, students, activists and others. Some have taken issue with my arguments. Some have offered support and proposed collaboration on related projects. Others have proposed business opportunities. My thanks to all of them for their comments and insights.
In this blog I want to highlight some issues related to occupational health and safety (OHS) analyses of our approaches to waste management and the 3Rs hierarchy. Even though I expressly include OHS issues in my new book, most journalists, waste experts and consultants avoid the topic like the plague. To paraphrase Guy Crittenden, most consultants and journalists seem to have read an industry or Ministry of the Environment memo suggesting that OHS issues in the sector are being well managed. End of story.
Indeed consultants and journalists regularly tell me things like this when I mention the importance of OHS issues. They’ll say, “David, the OHS issues associated with waste and 3Rs systems are no more serious than those associated with beer bottling plants or The Beer Store container collection centres. You should get over it.”
To which I always gasp, “What?” Lately, I channel the well-placed “What?” during Taylor Swift’s lyrics to her new hit song, We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together – song number two on an accidental gift CD left in my Dodge Caliber by my 20-year old daughter Alex. And then my mind goes spinning as I imagine attending some seminar in the late 1980s being run by industry and municipal recycling coordinators trained on conveyor belt operations by Henry Ford.
Even when I point out that my research is based on a thorough review of literature and Ontario Worker Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) data, they remain skeptical. Granted, I worked in the Policy Branch at the Ministry of Labour in 1989 and then I worked for Workplace Health and Safety Agency (WHSA) in 1993 and 1994, so unlike many waste policy wonks perhaps I know enough to be dangerous, to take liberties with Alexander Pope’s famous observation that “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Indeed, my direct experiences working on ergonomics and a range of other OHS issues taught me that I know almost nothing about the topic.
A Little Bit Of Knowledge About OHS: Some General Theory
I have been fortunate in 53 years on the planet to spend time working as a bus boy at a hotel – collecting garbage and hanging out with sanitary engineers, the ironic title for garbage workers that one of my English teachers would use. (For more on my experiences working as a bus boy, see the Introduction for my recent compilation of materials on the Adams Mine case, There is No Place Called “Away”: Why Exporting Garbage is Not Sustainable or Sensible http://www.amazon.com/There-Place-Called-Away-Sustainable/dp/1470197251)
Back in the early 1970s my mom and teachers would sing from the same hymn book and the message was consistent: if you don’t work hard in school you could end up collecting garbage. As if to spite them I ended up becoming a waste management and environmental lawyer (or a garbage lawyer as some of my “fans” have affectionately labeled me.) And I have spent dozens of days inspecting garbage, recyclables, and compostables and pondering the conundrums associated with sustainable waste systems and how we could go about promoting the ever-illusive zero-waste society. I even hung out with the award-winning and brilliant American archaeologist, Bill Rathje drilling waste cores at some of the landfills in the Greater Toronto Area back in the early 1990s. (Rathje began “Le Projet du Garbàge” in 1973, sorting waste at Tucson’s landfill and was internationally recognized for his work: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Rathje)
On the OHS front the story is nuanced and complex. In most respects, collecting garbage and recyclables in trucks on our streets and roads is extremely dangerous. Injury rates are very high (as indicated in the 1993 WHSA report on the topic included in my book). I co-authored the report while I worked at the WHSA in 1993 and it was presented at the Recycling Council of Ontario’s annual conference held in October 1993. As the 1993 WHSA report shows, garbage workers sometimes freeze in the winter and are subject to heat stroke in the summer. They are exposed to sharps (medical needles) and sometimes even encounter explosive containers and household hazardous waste (HHW) put in blue boxes. Indeed, the materials that end up in blue boxes are both entertaining and scary. Once in 1989 I even saw an over-enthusiastic resident in the Dufferin and St. Clair area of Toronto deposit an engine motor.
What Some Workers Might Tell Us
Research I conducted for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (OMOE) in 1993 demonstrated that sanitary engineers (aka. garbage workers) collecting municipal wastes, compostables and recyclables pay a very high price for their service to our communities. They sustain serious and repeated back injuries among other shocks, especially as they age, partly due to people overloading their garbage and recycling containers.
Last week, as reported by a blogger for the Windsor Star, a single worker collecting municipal waste for Turtle Island Recycling (TRI) in Windsor, Ontario managed to get his arm caught in a crushing mechanism. He somehow coaxed the local neighbours (who seemed more traumatized then the sanitary engineer) to manipulate the various levers, buttons, devices and mechanisms and free his arm before the paramedics arrived. But he is much braver than I am: I would have been very nervous at the prospect of well-intentioned but nervous local residents manipulating crushing devices and buttons they had never seen before. Just watch the videos on the website below.
See: Garbage worker “remarkably calm” despite arm being trapped in trash crusher, September 4, 2012. posted at 10:41 am, Section: News, Ward 1, Windsor,
This fellow working for TRI seems to have gotten off very lightly – and I’m sure everyone involved was very relieved. But not everyone is this fortunate. For example, in November 2011, BFI Canada Inc. was fined $150,000 for a violation of the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) after a worker’s foot was run over by a collection truck.
In its court submissions, the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) noted the worker from a temporary help agency was assigned to haul recyclable material from the curb and put it into a waste collection truck for BFI in Ottawa.
While performing his duties on May 28, 2009, the poor fellow got out of the truck while it was still moving and the truck ran over his foot. An MOL investigation found the company had safety procedures prohibiting workers from exiting a moving vehicle but the temporary worker was not properly trained.
BFI Canada Inc. was found guilty of failing to provide information, instruction and supervision to the worker with respect to safe operating procedures for mobile waste collection as required by the Provincial Offences Act. A 25% victim fine surcharge was also imposed. (The surcharge is credited to a special provincial government fund to assist victims of crime.)
How OHS Risks Create Pressure To Privatize Garbage Pick-Up
Back in 1993, the former Minister of the Environment, Bud Wildman tasked me with preparing a critical analysis of the hidden costs of privatizing garbage and 3Rs collection services in response to intense waste industry pressure to oppose regional public systems for all aspects of 3Rs and waste systems. As the research I conducted for the OMOE in 1993 demonstrated, garbage and 3Rs workers who sustain serious and repeated back injuries etc. especially as they age, face precarious situations after they are injured. If they are employed by a large municipality, the workers may initially feel secure because – in theory – their municipal employers have to accommodate them under worker compensation rules, by providing a desk job or lighter duties.
In theory, seriously and repeatedly injured private sector employees are supposed to be accommodated as well. But often there are no jobs that an injured private sector garbage collection worker can do and the employer finds a way to get rid of the non-unionized worker after a relatively short period. Indeed, this is why there is massive pressure to privatize garbage pick-up. Of course, a great deal of the hassle in firing an injured garbage worker can be avoided if a temporary worker who has few or no protections is hired by a private hauler in the first place. And not surprisingly, this is how the poor fellow who had foot crushed was hired.
To the credit of public and private haulers, the current trend is to automate operations which reduces lifting hazards and should reduce back injuries, partly driven by rising WSIB premiums but also driven by government and corporate recognition that injury prevention is logical and profitable.
Recyclable materials sent to material recycling facilities (MRFs) also have to be processed and sorted. The work is mind-numbing and causes much higher rates of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) compared to those at container depots and the Beer Stores for Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) containers because the MRF conveyor belts move very fast. (The quality of LCBO recyclable glass from the Beer Store also is higher than the blue box system.)
Working in depots or reuse centres like The Beer Store collecting empty beer bottles and used LCBO containers is much safer than sorting waste at the curb. The workspace usually is reasonably well heated and you are never hit by reckless, impatient, or rude car, bus and trucks drivers. (There are dozens of garbage and recycling workers injured this way every year.)
Bottling plants are noisy but of course workers are urged to and can wear ear muffs. And the plants are temperature controlled. Visit a bottling plant operated by the beer industry and you’ll see what I mean. My bet is that you would prefer to work there. Besides, I’ve heard sometimes the beer plant employers even give you coupons for free beer. (The beer companies used to give workers free cases of beer on a regular basis but then the workers would have tailgate parties in the company parking lots on Friday afternoon. So the police started to station themselves down the street…easy money.)
In future blogs I will examine the recent crackdown by MOL on various aspects of garbage and 3Rs operations in the past couple of years.
David McRobert is an Ontario-based environmental and energy lawyer and a blogger for HMM and SWR magazines. Between October 1994 and June 2010, he was In-House Counsel at the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and was involved in the establishment of the office. David has a B.Sc. in Biology from Trent University (1980), a Master’s degree, and an LL.B. degree from Osgoode Hall Law School (1987). He taught environmental law at York University between 1994 and 2009 and has numerous previous publications.
If you want to reach David, contact him at mcrobert@sympatico.ca
Click below to purchase David’s new book or visit his website for more information.

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1 Comment » for Occupational health and safety (OHS), waste and the 3Rs
  1. Kara Lee says:

    Hey David, interesting response, I’ll have to grab your book after coming across this blog!

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