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Emphasis on worker safety key for recycling industry

Keywords: Tags  Full of Scrap, Lisa Gordon, OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, worker safety

Reporting on the recycling industry requires the ability to tackle diverse subjects on a moment’s notice. But there is one topic with which I am never comfortable, haunting me well after deadlines pass.

The death of a scrapyard worker is truly a horrible occurrence. I make every attempt to not miss a single one because I can only hope that reports are posted in lunchrooms as a real reminder that people do die in the industry and to illustrate that they are preventable. While acts of God are known to happen, nearly every fatality at a scrapyard is the result of human error: a polite way of saying an employee’s death often is the result of his own choices and actions.

The fatal accident that stays in my memory to this day was one involving a man who died after climbing into a baler to clear a machine jam. This tragedy, like so many others, didn’t have to happen. In addition to shutting down the equipment, if the power source had been switched off at the utility box the accident couldn’t have occurred. Generally, when a jam is cleared the machine will start back up. Was he in a hurry, or running late, or just plain tired from working a long shift? We will never know, but the shortcut left behind a grieving family, including a baby who will never have any recollection of his father.

Looking at the circumstances involving scrapyard deaths over the past year indicates that so many of them were senseless.

A worker whose job was to feed an aluminum shredder died when he stepped onto a hopper to free a piece of jammed metal and either fell into the shredder or became caught. Either way, it is another example of an accident that could have been prevented if the power had been locked out. Likewise, a worker decommissioning a car was crushed to death when the gas tank he used to prop up the vehicle failed, proving that shortcuts just aren’t worth the risk.

Having almost been run over at a scrapyard myself, it’s all too clear how quickly accidents can happen. While walking by a shredder, I almost headed straight into the path of a backhoe because its noise was drowned out by that of the shredder. Luckily, someone pulled me out of harm’s way, but it happened in a split second and I never saw it coming. It was made clear to me how important it is to pay attention, look both ways and never assume the driver sees you; in fact, it makes good sense for the pedestrian to assume that the driver doesn’t see him.

Any worker who thinks he is doing a service to his company by cutting corners is sadly mistaken, and instead risks imposing trauma on his colleagues and management, as well as his own family.

Industrial accidents warrant an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which almost always lead to fines. I can’t recall a single instance where OSHA didn’t fine a company when a worker was killed on the job, even though it cited negligence by the deceased employee. I find it hard to fathom how a company can be responsible for an employee’s actions, but a review of OSHA statistics fortifies the fact that companies will be fined regardless of whether the fault lies with the worker or the company.

One company was assessed a $150,000 fine after an employee was killed doing maintenance work on a shredder. A worker assisting on the job helped to pin open the top of the shredder and left the area; when he returned, he found the co-worker had been crushed to death

Another recycler was fined $186,000 for a worker’s death even though the report stated, “Employee #1 was operating the trommel. It jammed. He decided to unjam the machine without isolating and locking it out. He entered the trommel. As he unjammed the machine, it started up. The moving debris and machine parts killed him.” Nearly one-third of the fine was for failing to lock out the power sourceÑwhich the worker chose not to do.

However, these incidents highlight the importance of regular testing, safety training and perhaps even role-playing scenarios aimed at preventing such disasters.

Just as libel training and tests are the norm in publishing to ensure responsible reporting, perhaps a similar testing mechanism could be implemented by metal recyclers. These tests could present a real-life situation and offer employees multiple-choice answers regarding the best approach for resolving the issue safely. In addition, employees could be asked to sign a statement indicating they have taken the test and understand how critical it is to follow the rules. Employers also should make safety training a regular requirement, and make it clear to workers that they must refuse to go along with others who want to cut corners and create a risky environment.

The bottom line: there’s no place for shortcuts in recycling, and industrial fatalities simply are not acceptable.

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