Four times as many publicly employed trash and recycling collectors miss work because of injuries and illnesses than their brethren in the private sector, according to statistics revealed at Wastecon on Tuesday.
The startling numbers were unveiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. They show an average of 4,017 public workers missed at least one day of work annually between 2008 and 2010. That compares with an annual average of 1,070 collection workers in the private sector, according to David F. Utterback, a senior health scientist at NIOSH.
Utterback uses U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on accidents, injuries and fatalities to try to better understand trends in the solid waste and recycling management industries. He was part of a panel discussion at Wastecon exploring safety and health issues.
"The big picture is there are very serious injuries and illnesses in the solid waste industry as a whole," Utterback said.
Drilling down into the issue of injury-rate differences between the two similar groups, Utterback struck a balance between presenting the data and offering opinions about what's behind the numbers. He repeatedly cautioned that his thoughts were conjecture and speculation, but did provide some insight from his perspective.
- Employees at private firms could be underreporting their problems. "There are genuine concerns about employees keeping accurate logs," Utterback said, adding that the BLS found underreporting in other industries. Public employees, he said, also could be more likely to report an accident once it happens.
- Equipment also could be less up-to-date in the public sector, which might lead to more injuries and illnesses. That includes the use of automated collection equipment. "Again, that's conjecture," he said.
- One other factor the health scientist has thought about is the nature of the two types of organizations. Solid waste management companies could be more likely to have job-specific safety training as opposed to more generalized training given to several different types of municipal workers.
"I think in both cases, the risk for injuries and fatalities are elevated greater than for U.S. industry as a whole," he said.
Chris Marlowe is safety and health manager for CDM Smith, a consulting firm that serves the industry. He was also on the panel Tuesday at Wastecon.
"I think that part of the deal is that the costs associated with an accident are more well-hidden in the public sector. The direct responsibility for economic losses like accidents are a little more clearer in the private sector where often the public government doesn't see that quite as fast," he said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also is more effective at reaching private companies than public entities, Marlowe said.
"In general, the private sector receives a lot more encouragement through OSHA. An example of this is if you knowingly do something that kills a worker in private sector, you as an individual manager can serve six months in jail," Marlowe said. "And in general, in state regulations, that's not there. So I think that there are a bunch of dynamics that our country maybe should be ashamed of that caused this to happen."