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Poor safety culture linked to two-thirds of waste fatalities

Inadequate safety management systems (SMS) in the waste and recycling industry have contributed to two-thirds of fatalities, a report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) claims.

Poor safety culture linked to two-thirds of waste fatalities
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The research, which explored how human factors issues contribute to fatalities, reviewed 18 of the 58 fatal incidents between 2008-09 and 2013-14, and drew on firsthand accounts from the HSE inspectors who investigated the cases. 

For 12 of the fatal incidents, there was a suggestion of poor safety culture in organisations, which was characterised by a combination of a deliberate disregard for safety and a lack of ownership and control of safety and health.  

The industry analysis, which covered a range of activities such as kerbside waste collections and collection and sorting recyclable material at fixed sites, found that all organisations, regardless of size, had at least one fault in their SMS. 

Employers and employees both failed to identify or adequately identify risks. In small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) there was a lack of effective control measures and enforcement was poor, while for all organisations, business plans for how work should be carried out either did not exist or were inadequate. 

The analysis found that even for larger organisations which had more advanced systems, though they were well documented, the SMS did not encompass how the work was being carried out by employees, which the report suggests could be due to “creeping changes” where small, accumulative, changes had gone unnoticed but had added to a significant change in the working environment or practices. 

The report notes how poor SMS impact on safety performance and is closely linked to safety culture. 

“An effective SMS and improved safety culture will provide clarity about who is responsible for health and safety and reduce the number of deliberate unsafe actions, as both employers and employees understand the reasons for the good safety management,” it says. 

“By improving the SMS, an organisation should be able to identify the need to separate people and hazardous machinery, provide procedures on how and when work should be carried out (and what equipment is provided), and provide effective and enforced control measures on site.”

The report offers solutions to improve the industry’s safety record. Although the waste and recycling sector only accounts for about 0.4% of employees in Great Britain, the fatal injury rate for waste and recycling workers is over three times greater than in the construction industry and 15 times greater than the average rate across all industries from 2012-13 to 2016-17.

Inspectors interviewed recommended a joint HSE and industry initiative to raise awareness of an organisation’s legal requirements to identify how equipment will be used and maintained on site. Apart from SMS, the other priority area for action is improving the selection, use and maintenance of equipment. 

The report’s recommendations also include providing guidance for the use of equipment and specifying good practice on its use and maintenance. It also suggests sharing examples of effective management with SMEs, for example, on how materials should be stacked safely and using closed circuit TV footage to illustrate what poor safety management looks like. Inspectors also recommended involving employees in the development of safe processes and procedures to reduce errors and providing employees with training in risk awareness.


Nic Warburton is acting editor, IOSH Magazine

 Nick Warburton was previously acting editor of IOSH Magazine. Before that he was editor of SHP and he has also worked on Local Authority Waste and Recycling and Environmental Health Practitioner

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