Recycling may be great for the environment but workers in the recycling industry face their own set of unique health and safety hazards.
Sorting is an extremely important part of the recycling process and those working in this sector play a critical role as they determine the quality of the feedstock. This quality ultimately affects the profits and market values which businesses generate from their recyclable commodities. Hence, those working as sorters have a huge responsibility on them.
Advanced recycling equipment, such as trash compactors, have made the process easier for workers. However, such equipment cannot replace the skills of humans and hence human intervention remains a crucial part of the process. Workers in the recycling industry are often confronted with several types of health and safety hazards due to the nature of the operations.
Described below are 4 common health and safety concerns to watch out for in the recycling industry.
Negligence During Maintenance
As is the case with any industrial machine, recycling equipment also requires servicing, cleaning, adjustments and general maintenance in order to perform efficiently. For instance, if a proper lockout and tagout procedure is not followed for equipment when workers are servicing it or fixing a problem in it, they can face fatal amputations or life-threatening injuries. Lockout/Tagout is a type of safety measure which ensures that the equipment is properly shut down and cannot restart before maintenance or servicing is completed.
Repetitive Stress or Motion Injuries
The process of recycling requires the workers involved to reach, jump, twist and stoop to sort materials on fast-moving conveyor belts with fixed dimensions. Especially those involved in sorting are required to often stand or lean forward at a stretch for hours using recurring motion. As a result, those working with recycling equipment may suffer from motion injuries or repetitive stress injuries of shoulder, hands, knees, fingers and back.
Respiratory Diseases Due to Airborne Contaminants
Airborne contaminants are a very common byproduct of waste and recyclable materials. These pollutants can have serious health consequences on those who are involved in waste sorting and recycling process. The dust arising from these processes often contains micro-particles of glass, plastics, toxic substances such as silica or asbestos or miscellaneous respiratory irritants. Even organic waste such as rotting food or animal feces can transmit airborne pollutants in the form of bio-aerosols. Hence, preventive respiratory protection in form of masks and systematic ventilation are a must to reduce the risk of associated health risks.
Exposure to Harmful Chemical and Biological Substances
In spite of the multi-bin separation systems installed by the municipalities, people are often ignorant or have misconceptions about the recycling process. This puts the workers at a risk of being exposed to harmful chemical and biological substances. Such as:
- Household and industrial chemicals like solvents, motor oil, batteries and mercury in discarded thermometers
- Sharp objects like metal or wood shards, broken glass, nails etc.
- Bloodborne Pathogens from used hypodermic needles
- Decaying bodies of animals such as cats, dogs, squirrels which climbed in waste bins looking for food and got stuck
- Waste biological substances like used diapers, rotting food waste, animal feces and disease-causing pathogens thriving on such waste
These risks becomes manifold with the speedy conveyor belts and material quotas which require quick sorting of recyclable goods and such hazardous materials
Recycling facility operators should consider such health and safety hazards and implement sufficient measures as well as strict protocols to mitigate these hazards and protect workers.